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section 20 and human rights damages (£17,500 award)

 

Kent County Council v M and K (section 20 : declaration and damages) 2016

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/HCJ/2016/28.html

 

The judicial trend for curbing the worst excesses of section 20 continues (see for example  https://suesspiciousminds.com/2015/10/21/fast-and-the-furious-tunbridge-wells-drift/ )

Apologies to the people of Kent, I know some of you are readers, and it is nothing personal, I just report the cases as they happen.

In this case, there was NO issue as to whether the original section 20 consent was lawful (the parents had capacity, and the principles laid down by Hedley J had been properly followed), but the drift and particularly here the failure to issue care proceedings in a timely fashion were what led to the human rights claim, and later damages.  Most of the s20 drift cases involve very young children – in fact infants, but this one involved an older child whose difficulties were significant and got worse over time.  This one is unusual in that it was not the parent complaining that drift and delay had impacted negatively on them, but the child arguing that although the mother had granted valid s20 consent and was not seeking rehabilitation of the child, the LA’s failure to issue care proceedings had harmed the child.

 

 K was placed in the care of the LA pursuant to section 20 Children Act 1989 (CA 1989) on 14 December 2011, the LA issued these proceedings on 16 November 2015. The HRA claim is put under three headings: the failure of the LA to assess K; failure to meet K’s needs and the failure to issue court proceedings. The LA deny this claim. K’s mother supports the claim. 

 

Just shy of four years of s20, that does seem like a long time – from a child’s perspective it is a massively long time, more than a fifth of their total years of childhood.

The Judge sets out the background prior to proceedings being issued. It is long, but I’ll put it in full, because it shows clearly the missed opportunities for the case to be seized and the drift put right. Many many LAC reviews.

  1. K was accommodated by the LA, pursuant to s 20 CA 1989, on 14 December 2011. Prior to that she had been living with her aunt, as her mother was unable to cope with her care. K has a younger sister who remains in her mother’s care. Her father has taken no active part in her care, or these proceedings.
  2. The LA had had prior involvement with K. They had completed a core assessment in April 2011 when K was living with her aunt. The assessment recorded the need for M to address her own mental health needs, K’s relationship with her M was difficult which ‘will certainly impact on her emotional and behavioural development’, and ‘[K] may well need some intervention from the primary mental health team to support her with the difficult feelings and interactions she has with her mother and sister’. The recommendations in the assessment included M to give parental responsibility to the aunt.
  3. On 5 December 2011 K’s aunt informed the LA that she was unable to continue to care for K. K’s mother, M, gave her consent to K being accommodated by the LA by telephone that day. There is no issue that this was a valid consent.
  4. The documents show a placement plan was formulated on 14 December, providing that the period of accommodation pursuant to s 20 was for an initial period of four weeks, pending the convening of a family group conference (FGC), to consider whether any alternative family placements could be explored. This plan recorded ‘It is a concern that [K’s] emotional needs has not been addressed in an appropriate way during her short life’. This care plan was signed by M.
  5. At the Looked After Review (LAC Review) on 6 January 2012, it records K needing a referral for therapy/counselling and a referral had been made to the Lenworth Clinic (next meeting 25 January). The care plan is recorded as being ‘Eventual return to birth family’. And under the ‘Assessment’ sub heading, it states a core assessment ‘to be updated’. Under ‘Emotional and Behavioural Development’ it states K is ‘known to CAMHS and plan is that once [K] is settled fully they will start working with her’. These LAC Review minutes are signed by M.
  6. On 11 January 2012 the family met at the FGC, and all agreed that it would be better for K to stay in foster care as none of the family were able to have K live with them. M signed this document, signifying her agreement to this plan.
  7. At the next LAC Review on 27 March 2012 there is a record of a meeting at the Lenworth Clinic on 25 January 2012, an acknowledgement that K needs a referral for therapy/counselling. It records the referral to the Lenworth Clinic and notes ‘no work will be undertaken with her until current foster placement would be confirmed for long term’. The acute difficulties between K and her M at contact are noted. Importantly, this record notes the change in care plan for K to long term foster placement with foster carers, but acknowledges K has not been informed. It records the core assessment has been completed (although no updated core assessment has been produced) and notes it recommends that it would be ‘advisable to convene a legal planning meeting for the [LA] to seek advice regarding [K’s] care status and issue of parental responsibility’. This advice is repeated in the care planning section, where it records ‘legal advice needs to be sought re long-term fostering as permanency for [K] and Parental Responsibility issue’. This topic is recorded in the decisions and recommendations section as ‘Legal advice to be sought re Parental Responsibility Issue By whom – Social Worker and her manager Timescales – 27/04/12′. This document is not signed by M.

 

 

Quick break in the background – the chronology there shows that by April 2012, there had been a decision that there needed to be a legal planning meeting to discuss the child’s legal status and plans for the future. In the next section we learn that some form of meeting with legal happened in June 2012.  We know that care proceedings were not issued until November 2015. Let’s continue.

  1. The advice from CAMHS of K being unable to benefit from individual therapy until she is ‘firmly ensconced within a family unit’ is confirmed in a letter copied to the LA from the Lenworth Clinic. The LA urge CAMHS to reconsider their position in a letter dated 2 May, stating that K is ‘settled down and doing exceptionally well in the foster placement’. In June CAMHS respond to say they have sent the foster carers a questionnaire and when it is returned the referral will be discussed further.
  2. K’s placement broke down on 5 July, in circumstances where her behaviour was so difficult the police had to be called.
  3. At the next LAC Review on 12 September 2012 there is reference in the record of the meeting to a legal planning meeting on 25 June 2012, but no other detail about this meeting has been disclosed. As regards the CAMHS referral it notes K has moved placements and another questionnaire will be sent to her new foster carer. The record repeats that K needs a referral for therapy/counselling and notes the concerns regarding K’s emotional well-being caused by her wish to live with her mother, why her sister lives with her mother and she can’t, and her mother’s inconsistent behaviour at contact. It continues ‘[K] has been emotionally and psychologically affected by her experiences. She does require psychological support as soon as possible…It is hoped that once this [questionnaire] has been received by CAMHS appointments will be set up’. Under the section entitled ‘Legal’ it states ‘A legal planning meeting needs to be pursued with regard to care proceedings’. There is reference to the core assessment and care plan to be updated. Under ‘Decisions and Recommendations’ is recorded ‘Care proceedings to be pursued in order to give this child some stability and long-term placement. The referral to CAMHS to be pursued and the questionnaire to be completed by the previous and present foster carer.’ M did not sign this record.
  4. On 27 September the LA were informed by the Lenworth Clinic that as K was no longer placed in their catchment area they were referred to the CAMHS resource in the area of the new foster placement.
  5. The next LAC Review was on 5 December 2012. There is a repeated reference to a legal planning meeting on 25 June 2012. As regards the CAMHS referral there is reference to Ms A (the LAC Mental Health Specialist in CAMHS) requesting a meeting with the foster carer, which was still outstanding. The record notes ongoing concerns about K’s emotional well being, that she struggles in her relationship with M and M being unable to empathise with K and what she is going through. K has been ’emotionally and psychologically affected by her experiences’ and requires psychological support as soon as possible. The record of the meeting refers to the care plan, stating that the case is twin tracked ‘but the mother is clear that she could not care for her daughter and will therefore not consider rehabilitation home. Given the situation, the local authority needs to pursue long-term plans for [K]‘. M does not sign these minutes.
  6. In April 2013 there is a letter from Ms A to the LA setting out the CAMHS meeting with the foster carer and the social workers. It is accepted by Ms King, for the LA, that K was not present.
  7. The LAC Review meeting on 16 May 2013 refers to the CAMHS meetings being with the foster carer, but then records K ‘has been emotionally and psychologically affected by her experiences. She is currently receiving psychological support via [Ms A] at CAMHS’, later on referring to Ms A as now ‘working with [foster carer] and [K] to advise on strategies to manage behaviours and support the placement’. The CAMHS referral has been noted to have been ‘actioned’. M does not sign the minutes, but is recorded as having been seen on 21 March.
  8. On 16 July 2013 there was an emergency breakdown of the foster placement, there was an alleged assault by K on the foster carer requiring a late night home visit by the LA.
  9. The LAC Review meeting on 5 September 2013 refers to K attending the meeting. The record notes there had been no updated core assessment, no life story or direct work done with K and that this had left her ‘confused and unclear why she could not remain in the care of her mother. This is further exacerbated by a younger half-sibling remaining in the care of [M].’ It continues ‘LA do not hold PR for [K] and no other family members have been identified. The LA needs to give further consideration to this given [K’s] young age and potential difficulties in the future if they do not hold PR…The LA have not been able to safeguard [K’s] emotional well being given the breakdown in placements and the fact that Permanency has not yet been achieved for her…She [K] has previously had intervention and support from CAMHS – it was unclear as to whether this is being offered at present….Legal: Section 20. LA will need to give this further consideration in view of securing stability and security for [K]’.
  10. In January 2014 there is a signed letter from M confirming her consent for the foster carer to sign for day trips abroad and emergency medical treatment. This is followed in February 2014 with a health consent form signed by M.
  11. There is a report from an educational psychologist, following a consultation with K on 6 November 2013 regarding her behaviour at school which is reported to have improved.
  12. Undated LAC Review minutes indicate a meeting took place in January 2014. There is reference to Ms A working with K in January 2013, which it is accepted is incorrect as no direct work was done with K. The minutes refer to Life Story work being started, but not completed. There is no entry in the box regarding consideration of any new legal orders. Under the section entitled ‘Is this the preferred placement option for this child/young person?’ it says ‘No’, when asked why, it states ‘It is preferred that [K] return to a Local Authority Foster Placement’, when asked about alternative plans it states ‘An assessment is being undertaken to fully identify [K’s] needs’.
  13. In May 2014 there is a letter from SM (Senior Systemic Psychotherapist CAMHS) to the social worker confirming the four professional meetings and their conclusion that ‘the uncertainty about her future is affecting [K’s] emotional well-being and since [the foster carer] is similarly unable to provide reassurance to [K] this is having an impact upon [K’s] attachment to the [foster carer] and the [foster carer’s] attachment to [K]. [the foster carer] must, by virtue of not knowing, withhold some aspects of ”normal’ family life as such as planning for the future. It could be that this is, in part, why [K] believes she may still return home, and why she has seemed confused in her thinking. Other issues notwithstanding, it would seem that [K] is positioned between two families and needs to know who she is going to live with long term. It must be borne in mind that multiple moves (such as have occurred for [K]) can only increase her sense of loss and reduce her hope that there is someone and somewhere she can feel safe and secure. It is not surprising that she displays very challenging behaviours, she must feel enraged and despairing.’
  14. At around this time M writes a letter to K, to explain why she can no longer care for her.
  15. In the LAC Review minutes for 18 June 2014 K is noted as attending. They note that the LA have not pursued to change the legal status for K as work was being undertaken with M and she is supporting the care plan. It notes that the social worker has ‘undertaken and completed much overdue life story work’ which M has supported so K has a clear message she is not returning home. Under ‘Legal’ the minutes record ‘[K] remains accommodated under s 20. Whilst Mum continues to give consent and work with the LA in care planning for [K] there are no indications to change this.’ In July 2014 M gave her consent for K to go on holiday with the foster carer. In another record of this meeting it notes ‘[K’s] emotional and physical behaviour continues to be of concern within the placement and this is felt to be due to the level of uncertainty she still has in regards to her placement due to being told she may be moving placements/is staying and the confusion this has caused her….a plan of permanency has not been agreed for the IFA placement due to Kent’s current policy on IFA placements..’.
  16. In September 2014 the foster placement broke down due to K’s disruptive behaviour and in October she moved to her fourth placement.
  17. At the LAC Review on 20 November 2014, which K attended, the minutes confirm that individual support from CAMHS has yet to be offered. As regards the care plan meeting the need for permanency it records ‘Yes – if stability of Placement is achieved. Consideration also needs to be given to [K’s] Legal Status which is s20 and has been since December 2011’. A little further on under ‘Legal’ it records ‘IRO has asked that LA give consideration as to how her Legal Status could be more secured.’ Under ‘Decisions and Recommendations’ the minutes note that the social worker is to request senior managers to write to CAMHS to secure appropriate level of service including a definite date for State of Mind Assessment. Also the social worker is to raise with managers K’s legal status and advise IRO of outcome. One record of this meeting refers to concerns about the increased use of restraint and sedatives in her previous foster placement, with no further reference to how this was dealt with or whether M was informed.
  18. A file note dated 7 December records discussions with the out of hours social worker. K had told the foster carer that ‘she could go back to her mum any time’. The record ends with the following ‘K needs to be spoken to urgently by her social worker tomorrow as she needs to feel validated and listened to and clearly needs an explanation about her current status in care and why she is not in her mother’s care. It seems she has some unrealistic expectations about return to her mother’.
  19. On 5 January 2015 there is an out of hours file note with the foster carer seeking to end the placement due to K’s behaviour. K moves to her fifth placement on 16 January.
  20. A file record on 18 March 2015 notes that CAMHS have not yet made any contact with the foster carer, although the school have made contact for K with another project.
  21. In around June 2015 the LA make a referral to Great Ormond Street CAMHS where they note K has ‘been passed around services for the last 18 months with no real support or assessment in place. The [LA] feel this in unacceptable for K and she needs a professional team to take responsibility for completing an assessment and putting a plan in place to address her needs’. The referral records it has the support of the service manager, Ms Ransley.
  22. K’s behaviour deteriorates again and the police are called. She moved to her sixth placement on 10 June 2015 for one night, before being placed with Mr and Mrs M her current carers on 11 June 2015. They are her seventh foster carer in four and a half years.
  23. The LAC Review minutes for the meeting on 7 July 2015 record the attendance of Ms Ransley and K and M’s apologies. The referral to GOSH is noted. Under ‘Legal’ it records ‘[K] remains accommodated under s20. Discussions have been ongoing outside of the CIC Reviews with LA regarding this. NB Subsequent to this Review Service manager advised via email that Care Proceedings will be filed in first week of September’.
  24. A psychological report dated 6 August 2015 details the number of moves K has had and recommends a referral to GOSH, which had already taken place.

 

 

This is very tricky. On the one hand, this child was clearly uncertain about her future and getting very mixed up by it. On the other hand, the Local Authority had a mother who was genuinely consenting to the child being in foster care and accepting that she was not able to care for her. There’s at least an argument that in keeping this outside of care proceedings, although the length of s20 was unusual, the LA were observing the least interventionist approach which is the spirit of the Children Act 1989. Bear in mind that the Court can only make an order if it is better for the child than not making one, and here we had a mother who was working with the Local Authority and in agreement with the foster placement and accepting that she could not resume care of K.  I can understand the LA doubt about whether an application for a Care Order could have resulted in a Care Order being made, given that mum was working with the LA and giving valid s20 consent.   It is the unusual position of it really being the child who was unhappy with the s20 rather than the parent.

 

It was the Guardian, on behalf of K, making the Human Rights Act claim. Here are the Guardian’s arguments as to why there was a breach of K’s human rights.

  1. On behalf of K it is submitted that when K was received into care in 2011, at the behest of the LA, they were already aware from their own core assessment in April 2011 of her considerable difficulties in her relationship with her mother, and that she may need some intervention from the primary mental health team. Despite this knowledge in their own assessment the LA failed to;
    1. (i) Update her core assessment for over 2 years, despite repeated recommendations at LAC Reviews to do so.

(ii) Seek a psychological assessment of K’s family. The LA had recommended this should be done at a meeting in January 2005.

(iii) Seek a psychiatric or psychological assessment of K until 2015, despite that being recommended in LAC review meetings from March 2012. It is acknowledged she did see an educational psychologists in November 2013, but this concerned her behaviour at school. Some of the LAC reviews appeared to proceed on the basis that she was seeing someone from CAMHS, but the report dated 6 August 2015 from the trainee psychologist VT makes it clear she had not met K.

(iv) Life story work, although repeatedly recommended in LAC reviews did not start until over 2 years after she was received into care.

  1. In her statement the Guardian deals with the lack of assessment in the following way; ‘If such an assessment was sought many years ago work could have been done on the mother/child relationship which may have prevented the need for [K’s] permanent accommodation. In any event work could have been carried out on attachment and behavioural issues and therapeutic intervention could have assisted [K’s] development which suffered by this not happening…This is an assessment that the LA could have commissioned itself, if CAMHS would not agree to undertake it’. Mr Hall rejects any suggestion in the LA evidence that they recognise, with the benefit of hindsight, they may have acted differently. He submits the need for assessment was obvious from the time K was placed with foster carers in 2011. K’s attachment difficulties with her mother needed urgent assessment, and then effective support put in place. That was repeatedly recommended, but not done.
  2. Turning to his second heading, Mr Hall recognises that it is inter-linked with the failure to assess. In the record of the LAC review meeting on 5 September 2013 the LA candidly recognise they have ‘..not been able to safeguard [K’s] emotional wellbeing given the breakdown of placements and fact that permanency has not been achieved for her.’
  3. There have been 7 placement breakdowns, often at short notice and in upsetting and distressing circumstances for K. The records have many references to the extent the placement breakdowns have caused K emotional harm. In their referral for a psychological report in 2014, some three years after K has been in the LA’s care, the reason for a different picture at school emerged. As the record of the meeting notes ‘…[K] has learnt to cope by withdrawing emotionally and functioning independently whilst maintaining control over her environment. This works well at school and when she first enters into a new placement. However, this coping strategy breaks down at home as she starts to settle and get close to the foster carer…’ To illustrate this Mr Hall relies on the report to the LA review in January 2014 concerning K’s third foster placement with Mr and Mrs T. The social work report for the review notes that K was happy and beginning to form an attachment to the foster carer, but as it was an agency placement the LA, as a matter of policy, were unable to sanction this placement as a long term placement. The report notes that this lack of certainty in the placement was impacting on K’s emotional well-being. This view was endorsed in a letter dated 15 May 2014 from CAMHS and it went further in stating ‘It must be borne in mind that multiple moves (such as have occurred for [K]) can only increase her sense of loss and reduce her hope that there is someone and somewhere she can feel safe and secure. It is not surprising she displays very challenging behaviours, she must feel enraged and despairing.’
  4. Between December 2011 and February 2016 Mr Hall submits the LA have not ensured K has received appropriate therapy; had they done so the Guardian considers K’s family life is likely to have been very different. At the LAC review on 4 February 2015 it was recorded ‘…It is imperative that therapeutic support is offered to [K] to enable her to become more stabilised to reduce the risk of further placement breakdowns’.
  5. Under the third heading, the failure of the LA to issue court proceedings, Mr Hall also recognises is linked to the first two. He submits on the LA’s own records K suffered from instability from spending so long in foster care, with only her mother having parental responsibility and no clear direction. K’s current social worker Ms A sets out in her statement in support of these proceedings ‘It is envisaged that a care order will also support [K] in terms of feelings of security and stability, as she has historically struggled to understand the decisions made by her mother, and therefore she will know that there will be a level of oversight to her care planning’.
  6. Mr Hall submits if proceedings had been issued there is every likelihood they would have made a difference. The repeated failures by the LA to follow through their own decisions would have been subject to effective scrutiny, by the guardian, her legal representative and the court. The issue was repeatedly flagged up by the LA from March 2012, but not followed through. Had K been represented in court proceedings, there would have been proper oversight, the plans would not have been allowed to drift and assessments would have been undertaken when required. Whilst K’s mother did not raise any complaints at the time about how K was cared for by the LA, she had not been able to provide consistent and predictable care for K before 2011, K’s mother had her own mental health difficulties, she was inconsistent in her attendance at LAC reviews and her contact was gradually reduced to the extent she was only seeing K once during each school holiday. Mr Hall submits it is difficult to see how she could be regarded as someone who was proactively exercising her parental responsibility in relation to K.
  7. As regards any suggestion by the LA that s 20 is not time limited and/or is not always a prelude to care proceedings Mr Hall submits the LA’s own records point in the other direction. In particular,
    1. (i) On 12 September 2012 the LAC review records that a legal planning meeting needs to be pursued with regard to care proceedings noting ‘care proceedings to be pursued in order to give this child some stability’ and long-term placement’.

(ii) On 16 May 2013 the LAC review records that the LA are to review current legal status within next 3 working weeks and advise IRO of outcome.

(iii) 5 months later on 5th September 2013 the records note the LA does not hold PR for K and ‘the LA needs to give further consideration to this given [K’s] young age and potential difficulties in the future if they do not have PR…the LA have not been able to safeguard [K’s] emotional wellbeing given the breakdown of the placements and the fact that permanency has not been achieved for her’.

(iv) 14 months later on 20 November 2014 the LAC review notes ‘IRO has asked that LA give consideration as to how her legal status could be more secured…Sally to raise with managers [K’s] legal status and advise IRO of outcome’.

(v) 4 months later on 4 February 2015 the LAC review records similar concerns being expressed by the IRO as to K’s legal status.

  1. The LA issued care proceedings on 16 November 2015. Mr Hall submits the fact that care proceedings were finally issued conclusively responds to any suggestion by the LA as to their necessity. Otherwise, he asks rhetorically, why did they issue them? He submits that the failure to issue the proceedings soon after K was placed in care has denied K the opportunity to be properly assessed and access appropriate support at a much earlier stage as, he submits, it would be inconceivable that a court would have permitted care plans to be made without a proper assessment of K’s needs. As a result K has lost the opportunity to have the input of a Guardian, a legal representative and planning for her care to be properly and robustly based on sound assessment.
  2. Mr Hall submits the detrimental effect on K of the LA’s failure to secure emotional, practical and legal stability for her is clear from the LA records and the Guardian’s evidence.

 

The point here on the delay in issuing care proceedings that it is not merely the making of a Care Order that is achieved within care proceedings – having judicial and Guardian scrutiny of the care PLANS is a vital part of the process and if this had happened, K would have had a better care plan much sooner and suffered less disruption and harm in care.  The journey through care proceedings, says the Guardian, is just as significant as the ultimate destination.

 

What did the LA say?

 

  1. Ms King on behalf of the LA does not dispute the LA records. She submits there is no issue about the validity of the consent given by K’s mother, either at the start or during K’s placement with foster carers. She submits neither statute nor any guidance stipulate s 20 is a short term measure only. In this case, unlike the reported cases, there was not any dispute about the LA’s care plan for K. So, she submits, the starting point is very different and distinguishes this case on the facts.
  2. Ms King submits the documents show there was considerable involvement by K’s mother, such as the number of written consents provided by her for the foster carers to sign forms for her, the letter she wrote to K about why she was placed with foster carers. The submission on behalf of K that they should have issued care proceedings earlier does not amount to a breach of her article 6 and 8 rights.
  3. She submits there is no evidence of a failure to plan for permanency in that the LA investigated the options with the family first, when this was not possible their plan for K was to be placed with long term foster carers. They acknowledge the high number of placements, but state being within care proceedings was unlikely to have made any difference to the efforts made by the LA to secure a permanent placement. Ms Ransley, the service manager for the area at the relevant time, states ‘Providing children with stability within foster care is often a challenge (this is irrespective of their legal status) and this sadly was the theme for [K]. [K] experienced numerous foster care breakdowns within both the in house provision and the commissioned private foster care sector, which is regrettable but not unusual within a care system which operates a 30 per cent disruption rate. Finding the right match where it clicks, can often evade even the most meticulous professional.’ Ms King submits no link has been established that the situation would have been any different if care proceedings had been issued earlier than they were.
  4. Ms King refutes the submission that the LA failed to assess and/or provide therapeutic support for K. She submits the papers demonstrate the appropriate referrals were made to CAMHS but CAMHS concluded they should provide a service to the carers, not directly with K until she was settled in her placement. Whilst Ms Ransley in her statement acknowledges the LA’s frustration with the position taken by CAMHS that is the service provided to meet the mental health needs for children by the NHS, which is what the LA commissions for children in their care. Ms King relies on the fact that the Guardian has not sought an independent assessment within these proceedings.
  5. Ms King submits the submission on behalf of K that as a result of the LA breaches K’s welfare has been harmed, is speculative. Given the harm K suffered prior to coming into care and the extent to which that has been the root cause of her placement breakdowns and the uncertainty over CAMHS support due to placement uncertainty, such harm as might be found proved cannot be attributed directly to the failings of the LA to the extent of a breach of K’s article 6 and 8 rights.
  6. Finally, Ms King submits K’s mother has exercised her PR in a way regarding K’s accommodation that was and is consistent with her welfare. There were no alternative carers for her and K had an IRO. Ms King states in her written skeleton argument ‘Whilst the LA accept that it is better for [K] that a care order is made so that her position as a child in care is formalised by way of an order which signals permanency and confers PR onto the LA, none of those advantages mean the LA has acted unlawfully and/or breached [K’s] Article 6 rights. Her mother exercised her PR in a free and informed manner. Her mother decided that [K] was best looked after by the LA. She was entitled to take that decision and the LA was entitled to act on it’.

 

I think that those are good points – somewhat weakened by the number of placements and the child being at times sedated in care, which is a very unusual set of circumstances, but on the whole, the Local Authority had a decision to make as to whether care proceedings would achieve something for the child that could not be achieved without it.  I have certainly had cases (with the child not having such a bumpy ride in care) where with an adolescent in a settled foster placement I have advised against care proceedings where the parents are giving long-term and capacitous section 20 consent with no prevarication.  For a significant part of that four year period,

We know from the headline though that the LA lost here, so let us cut to the chase.

 

Discussion and decision

  1. There is some force in the submission made by Ms King that the facts in this case are different than those in many of the reported cases concerning the misuse of s20. A common feature of those cases was an issue over the parent’s consent to their child being accommodated and the lack of agreement with the care plan; neither of those matters featured in this case.
  2. Ms King builds on that position as, whilst acknowledging what the President said in Re N (ibid) about s 20 having a role as a short term measure, she seeks to rely on the fact that there is nothing specific in the section, or guidance, to found that view.
  3. The difficulty with Ms King’s position is that the documents produced by the LA paint a picture of
    1. (i) A mother who has to a large extent abdicated her parental responsibility to the LA. Whilst she has some involvement in the decision making after K is placed with foster carers, the fact that she doesn’t seek to challenge the LA inactions in the context of what is taking place demonstrates her inability to exercise her parental responsibility proactively for the benefit of K.

(ii) The LA on the documents decided repeatedly there should be a further/updated core assessment, mental health assessment/therapeutic support and legal advice about K’s status; but the same documents demonstrate repeated failures to follow through these decisions.

(iii) Repeated and worsening placement breakdowns, which were deeply damaging to K’s emotional well-being.

  1. Whilst there is no time limit on providing s 20 accommodation in the statute, each case has to be considered on its own facts, with active consideration being given as to whether proceedings should be issued. In this case care proceedings would have helped significantly to provide the stability and security that K so clearly needed. K would have had the benefit of a guardian and legal representative to give her an effective voice regarding the LA failures and enabled the LA to share PR with M. As the LA accepted in the middle of 2015 K had been ‘passed around services for the last 18 months with no real support or assessment in place’. This is hardly a ringing endorsement by the LA of their own care planning for K.
  2. A common thread in the records is the harm being caused to K by the lack of security and stability any of her placements (other than the current one) were able to offer her. The evidence demonstrates K was acutely aware that her mother could remove her at any time.
  3. I am satisfied that the LA have acted unlawfully, in my judgment their actions have been incompatible with K’s article 8 and 6 rights. I have reached that conclusion for the following reasons:
  1. (1) The failure by the LA over a period of over three years to conduct or update the core assessment done in April 2011 meant the LA had not properly assessed K’s needs during the period she was placed with them from December 2011 to November 2015 to provide a secure foundation for care planning for her, in order to protect her article 8 right to family life. The care plan for long term fostering lacked any detailed foundation that such an assessment would have given it.

(2) The LA’s failure to secure appropriate mental health assessments and/or therapeutic support meant her continued placement breakdowns over that period were unsupported. Reliance on inconsistent CAMHS referrals together with the repeated misunderstanding of what CAMHS support was being provided permeated the decision making and the delay in seeking an assessment until 2015, when a referral was made to GOSH. This all contributed to the increased risk of repeated placement breakdown.

(3) The suggestion that the LA were not able to commission independent private providers on an ad hoc basis does not stand up to scrutiny. In her statement Ms Ransley states ‘Commissioning independent, private providers on an ad hoc basis does not happen. Local Authorities only generally fund these types of arrangements within care proceedings’. Yet this is what the LA did when they made a referral to GOSH in July 2015, prior to issuing proceedings. No explanation is given as to why this could not have been done earlier, other than an acknowledgement in Ms Ransley’s statement that ‘this should have happened sooner with hindsight.’

(4) The repeated failure by the LA to act on its own decisions for over three years to seek legal advice to secure K’s legal position, including consideration of the issue of proceedings and the advantages that would bring for K, together with the LA having PR through a care order. On their own admission in the evidence the LA filed in 2015 in support of the care proceedings, a care order would provide the stability that K clearly required. The delay of over three years in doing so is not justified in any way. That delay meant K was denied access to an independent guardian and her own legal representation, in circumstances where the LA were not implementing their own decisions about her and the only person with PR was not exercising it in a proactive way. K’s article 6 and 8 rights were compromised by this significant delay.

(5) Whilst K’s mother was entitled to exercise her PR for K in the way she did, that does not absolve the LA from actively considering whether it should secure its legal position in relation to the child concerned. Here K’s mother was, at most, after November 2011 reactive rather than proactive in exercising her PR. She responded to requests from the LA and attended some, but not all, meetings. Probably due to her own vulnerabilities she was not in a position to challenge the actions, or inaction, by the LA in relation to K.

(6) Reliance by the LA on the unlimited term of s 20 simply cannot be justified in a factual vacuum. The circumstances in this case demanded for K’s article 8 and 6 rights to be protected, for the LA to secure their legal position regarding K. The LA’s own records repeatedly make decisions of the need to get such advice, those decisions were repeatedly not acted on and when they were care proceedings were issued, nearly three and a half years after they should have been. It is unattractive for the LA to now submit that there was no obligation on them to issue such proceedings. The President’s words in Re N (ibid) could not be clearer.

(7) I am satisfied that if proceedings had been issued earlier the assessments that the LA failed to do are more likely to have been ordered by the court. Reliance by the LA on the fact that within these proceedings the Guardian has not sought any further assessment is a realistic recognition by her of the current position, that with a settled placement and a report from GOSH further assessment is not justified. That does not absolve the LA from responsibility of its failure to issue proceedings earlier, as it should have done, over three years ago.

(8) I agree that in considering this application the court should guard against making decisions with the benefit of hindsight. In her statement Ms Ransley observes ‘With the benefit of hindsight criticism can be formulated. Is the service and support provided to [K] optimal, [K] has been given what all children in care are, but for [K] like 30 percent of young people, her experience has been sub-optimal due to issues inherent in the care system. These issues are experienced by children subject to an order and those who are not.’ What this does not acknowledge are the facts of this case; the unacceptable delay in issuing proceedings, the consequent uncertainty which increased the risk of placement breakdown and the failure to properly assess and support K.

 

The Judge assessed the appropriate level of damages for K as being £17,500.

 

Statutory charge

 

The statutory charge is not very exciting, but I need to talk about it here, because it is important. The statutory charge is the term given where as a result of  free legal representation, someone obtains money through a Court order, and has to use that money to repay the cost of their legal aid. It usually occurs in divorce, and makes a lot of sense. If someone racks up a legal aid bill of £20,000 and as a result of their divorce gets £250,000 it makes perfect sense that the legal aid should be repaid out of that money, rather than the taxpayer footing the bill.

Up until fairly recently, this didn’t affect people in care proceedings. Legal aid for care proceedings is non-means non-merit  (which means that even a millionaire would be entitled to free legal advice and representation) and parents didn’t get any money back at the end.  But now that Human Rights compensation for bad behaviour by a Local Authority is a thing, the change to the Statutory Charge which means that it applies to such compensation is a big deal.

£17,500 of compensation for K is a decent amount of money, and intended to be compensation for what she has gone through in her life as a result of the human rights breaches the Court has found. But before she gets any of that money, she has to pay back the legal aid agency for the cost of her care proceedings AND the cost of her human rights claim.  That’s probably going to leave her with nothing.

Many of us were hoping that you could box off the human rights claim separately, which would be much less, and possibly an amount of money that the Court might order the Local Authority to pay. A human rights claim probably costs about £2,000, compared to the £10-20,000 of care proceedings  (remember that the legal aid bill covers barrister’s fees and expert fees too).

So, here are the options that the Court has :-

  1. Make no orders about costs, and know that almost the entire compensation package goes to the legal aid agency rather than the child or the parents.  Michael Gove is the person who benefits, not the person who actually suffered the human rights breaches.
  2. Make an order that the Local Authority pay the costs of the care proceedings AND the human rights claim. That means that the LA are paying out double the amount of compensation. It also makes it difficult to fit with the Supreme Court’s decision on costs in care proceedings, which are that there shouldn’t be costs orders unless the LA’s conduct WITHIN the proceedings has been egregiously bad. The conduct here is BEFORE the care proceedings, so there’s a strong chance that the LA would appeal. That racks up the costs even more, potentially swallowing up ALL the compensation, since really only the Supreme Court can decide how this affects their previous decisions.
  3. Make an order that the LA pay the costs of the human rights act claim. That’s a well-founded costs order and doesn’t cause legal problems. However, it is a small amount compared to the costs of the care proceedings, and may still end up with the child getting only a small amount of compensation.

 

 

The Judge in this case took the third option.

Costs

  1. Mr Hall seeks an order for the LA to pay the costs of the proceedings. He submits the HRA claim has succeeded, the court should be mindful of the impact of the statutory charge and in the circumstances of the case the court should make an order for the LA to pay the cost of the proceedings.
  2. Ms King resists this application. She submits the court should not depart from the general position in family cases that costs are not usually awarded in family proceedings (see Re S (A Child) [2015] UKSC 20 paras 15 and 29). She submits the LA have not taken an unreasonable stance. In any event, the LA should not be responsible for the cost of the proceedings, merely as a device to avoid the full impact of the statutory charge. She submits there are discrete costs concerning the HRA application.
  3. I recognise the financial pressures on the LA and that it is unusual for the court to make a costs order in care proceedings. Against that I have determined that the HRA claim succeeds, I rejected the submissions of the LA and made an award of damages. In the circumstances of this case, where the breaches continued for such a long period of time, I have reached the conclusion the LA should pay K’s costs of the HRA application only, but which will include the full costs of the hearing on 29 March 2016, as the only reason that hearing could not proceed was due to the late disclosure by the LA on that day of relevant documents. I will make no order for costs as between M and the LA.

 

 

 

I do have a fourth solution, but it is hard to use when a human rights act claim has already actually been made. Effectively, if a lawyer believes that the client has had their human rights breached and that compensation might be payable, they open up a brand new pro bono file. This is kept ENTIRELY separate from the care proceedings. Ideally another lawyer deals with the case so there’s no overlap at all.  Not a penny of publicly funded/legal aid money is spent on that file, so any compensation achieved is nothing to do with legal aid at all. The money would only go to legal aid if the care proceedings ended with a “Lottery order” about costs (that’s an order that says in effect, K had free legal aid and would only have to pay for it if she came into a huge sum of money, say a lottery win. These are NEVER made in care proceedings, because legal aid for them is non-means, non-merit – even a millionaire qualifies)

Ideally, under this pro bono file, the lawyer writes to the LA a pre-action protocol letter setting out the alleged breach and giving a figure that their client would be prepared to settle for. If the case settles, the costs are minimal and could be bundled into the settlement. The client gets the money, the lawyer gets paid for the work they’ve done, the LA don’t incur a costs order of tens of thousands.  If the case doesn’t settle, the lawyer has to decide whether to run it as effectively no-win no-fee, or to make an application for public funding knowing that the stat charge will bite on their client.

None of this should be necessary BECAUSE the Statutory Charge just plain and simple should not apply to human rights compensation cases, and particularly not to ones that arose out of care proceedings. Making someone pay out of their compensation for care proceedings that a millionaire would have got for free, and they only have to pay a penny BECAUSE their human rights were breached is just plain unfair and wrong. I don’t see that changing until the Press get outraged about the unfairness of it  or Michael Gove gets JR-ed on it.  Or perhaps a LA appeals a costs order for the entireity of the costs and the Minister gets added as an intervenor on the appeal.

 

 

*Addendum, solution number 5.

 

Judge smiles very clearly and obviously at counsel who had been making the HRA claim and invites them to withdraw it. If so, delivers judgment and says within it that IF had been asked would have found breaches and IF asked about quantum, would have said £x. Pauses after judgment, gives parties a small adjournment for discussions to see if any applications need to be made arising from the judgment, or whether for example an offer might be made an accepted. If Judge told that nothing arising, simply makes no order for costs. Stat charge doesn’t bite because no order for compensation made, and any compensation was achieved in that short adjournment for which nobody charges the Legal Aid Agency a penny for their time. If Judge is told that an application to revive the HR claim is made, then so be it, the LA will likely feel the full force of a costs order because they were too dumb to take a hint.

Court of Appeal – section 20 abuse

 

There have been several reported cases about Local Authorities misusing section 20 now, to obtain “voluntary accommodation” of children in foster care where the ‘voluntary’ element doesn’t seem all that voluntary, and therefore it was only a matter of time before the Court of Appeal fell upon such a case and made an example of it.

 

Here it is:-

 

Re N (Children: Adoption : Jurisdiction) 2015

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2015/1112.html

 

As you can see from the title, it is also a case about adoption and the jurisdiction to make adoption orders about children who are born to foreign parents or who live overseas by the time the order is made.  I would really want more time to ponder those parts of the judgment before writing it up.

 

This particular sentence from Aitkens LJ is probably worthy of a piece on its own – raising the issue of ‘limping adoption orders’

 

There is one further comment I wish to make. Both the President and Black LJ have emphasised that when an English court is considering making a placement order or adoption order in respect of a foreign national child, it must consider, as part of the “welfare” exercise under section 1(4) of the 2002 Act, the possibility of the result being a “limping” adoption order. By that they mean an adoption order which, although fully effective in this country, might be ineffective in other countries that the child and his adopters may wish or need to visit. There is a danger that natural parent(s) (or perhaps other parties) who oppose the adoption, will attempt to turn this factor into a major forensic battle by engaging foreign lawyers to give opinions on the effectiveness (or lack of it) of an English adoption order in other countries, in particular the state of the nationality of the natural parent(s). Those legal opinions might then be challenged and there is the danger of that issue becoming expensive and time consuming “satellite litigation”. I hope that this can be avoided by a robust application of the Family Procedure Rules relating to expert opinions.

 

So, focussing just on the section 20 issues  (If you want the background to what section 20 is, what drift is and why it is a problem, I’ll point you towards my most recent piece on it  https://suesspiciousminds.com/2015/10/21/fast-and-the-furious-tunbridge-wells-drift/)

 

This is what the Court of Appeal had to say  (and this is one of those judgments that the President has cascaded down – which is a posh way of saying “sent by email to all Courts saying that they must read it and follow it”)

 

  1. Other matters: section 20 of the 1989 Act
  2. The first relates to the use by the local authority – in my judgment the misuse by the local authority – of the procedure under section 20 of the 1989 Act. As we have seen, the children were placed in accordance with section 20 in May 2013, yet it was not until January 2014, over eight months later, that the local authority eventually issued care proceedings. Section 20 may, in an appropriate case, have a proper role to play as a short-term measure pending the commencement of care proceedings, but the use of section 20 as a prelude to care proceedings for a period as long as here is wholly unacceptable. It is, in my judgment, and I use the phrase advisedly and deliberately, a misuse by the local authority of its statutory powers.
  3. As I said in Re A (A Child), Darlington Borough Council v M [2015] EWFC 11, para 100:

    “There is, I fear, far too much misuse and abuse of section 20 and this can no longer be tolerated.”

    I drew attention there, and I draw attention again, to the extremely critical comments of the Court of Appeal in Re W (Children) [2014] EWCA Civ 1065, as also to the decision of Keehan J in Northamptonshire County Council v AS and Ors [2015] EWHC 199 (Fam). As Keehan J pointed out in the latter case (para 37), the accommodation of a child under a section 20 agreement deprives the child of the benefit of having an independent children’s guardian to represent and safeguard his interests and deprives the court of the ability to control the planning for the child and prevent or reduce unnecessary and avoidable delay. In that case the local authority ended up having to pay substantial damages.

  4. Then there was the decision of Cobb J in Newcastle City Council v WM and ors [2015] EWFC 42. He described the local authority (paras 46, 49) as having acted unlawfully and in dereliction of its duty. We had occasion to return to the problem very recently in Re CB (A Child) [2015] EWCA Civ 888, para 86, a case involving the London Borough of Merton. Even more recent is the searing judgment of Sir Robert Francis QC, sitting as a Deputy High Court Judge in the Queen’s Bench Division in Williams and anor v London Borough of Hackney [2015] EWHC 2629 (QB), another case in which the local authority had to pay damages.
  5. Moreover, there has in recent months been a litany of judgments in which experienced judges of the Family Court have had occasion to condemn local authorities, often in necessarily strong, on occasions withering, language, for misuse, and in some cases plain abuse, of section 20: see, for example, Re P (A Child: Use of S.20 CA 1989) [2014] EWFC 775, a case involving the London Borough of Redbridge, Re N (Children) [2015] EWFC 37, a case involving South Tyneside Metropolitan Borough Council, Medway Council v A and ors (Learning Disability: Foster Placement) [2015] EWFC B66, Gloucestershire County Council v M and C [2015] EWFC B147, Gloucestershire County Council v S [2015] EWFC B149, Re AS (Unlawful Removal of a Child) [2015] EWFC B150, a case where damages were awarded against the London Borough of Brent, and Medway Council v M and T (By Her Children’s Guardian) [2015] EWFC B164, another case where substantial damages were awarded against a local authority. I need not yet further lengthen this judgment with an analysis of this melancholy litany but, if I may say so, Directors of Social Services and Local Authority Heads of Legal Services might be well advised to study all these cases, and all the other cases I have mentioned on the point, with a view to considering whether their authority’s current practices and procedures are satisfactory.
  6. The misuse of section 20 in a case, like this, with an international element, is particularly serious. I have already drawn attention (paragraphs 50-51 above) to the consequences of the delay in this case. In Leicester City Council v S & Ors [2014] EWHC 1575 (Fam), a Hungarian child born in this country on 26 March 2013 was accommodated by the local authority under section 20 on 12 April 2013 but the care proceedings were not commenced until 10 October 2013. Moylan J was extremely critical of the local authority. I have already set out (paragraph 115 above) his observations on the wider picture.
  7. What the recent case-law illustrates to an alarming degree are four separate problems, all too often seen in combination.
  8. The first relates to the failure of the local authority to obtain informed consent from the parent(s) at the outset. A local authority cannot use its powers under section 20 if a parent “objects”: see section 20(7). So where, as here, the child’s parent is known and in contact with the local authority, the local authority requires the consent of the parent. We dealt with the point in Re W (Children) [2014] EWCA Civ 1065, para 34:

    “as Hedley J put it in Coventry City Council v C, B, CA and CH [2012] EWHC 2190 (Fam), [2013] 2 FLR 987, para 27, the use of section 20 “must not be compulsion in disguise”. And any such agreement requires genuine consent, not mere “submission in the face of asserted State authority”: R (G) v Nottingham City Council and Nottingham University Hospital [2008] EWHC 400 (Admin), [2008] 1 FLR 1668, para 61, and Coventry City Council v C, B, CA and CH [2012] EWHC 2190 (Fam), [2013] 2 FLR 987, para 44.”

  9. In this connection local authorities and their employees must heed the guidance set out by Hedley J in Coventry City Council v C, B, CA and CH [2012] EWHC 2190 (Fam), [2013] 2 FLR 987, para 46:

    “(i) Every parent has the right, if capacitous, to exercise their parental responsibility to consent under s 20 to have their child accommodated by the local authority and every local authority has power under s 20(4) so to accommodate provided that it is consistent with the welfare of the child.

    (ii) Every social worker obtaining such a consent is under a personal duty (the outcome of which may not be dictated to them by others) to be satisfied that the person giving the consent does not lack the capacity to do so.

    (iii) In taking any such consent the social worker must actively address the issue of capacity and take into account all the circumstances prevailing at the time and consider the questions raised by s 3 of the Mental Capacity Act 2005, and in particular the mother’s capacity at that time to use and weigh all the relevant information.

    (iv) If the social worker has doubts about capacity no further attempt should be made to obtain consent on that occasion and advice should be sought from the social work team leader or management.

    (v) If the social worker is satisfied that the person whose consent is sought does not lack capacity, the social worker must be satisfied that the consent is fully informed:

    (a) Does the parent fully understand the consequences of giving such a consent?

    (b) Does the parent fully appreciate the range of choice available and the consequences of refusal as well as giving consent?

    (c) Is the parent in possession of all the facts and issues material to the giving of consent?

    (vi) If not satisfied that the answers to (a)–(c) above are all ‘yes’, no further attempt should be made to obtain consent on that occasion and advice should be sought as above and the social work team should further consider taking legal advice if thought necessary.

    (vii) If the social worker is satisfied that the consent is fully informed then it is necessary to be further satisfied that the giving of such consent and the subsequent removal is both fair and proportionate.

    (viii) In considering that it may be necessary to ask:

    (a) What is the current physical and psychological state of the parent?

    (b) If they have a solicitor, have they been encouraged to seek legal advice and/or advice from family or friends?

    (c) Is it necessary for the safety of the child for her to be removed at this time?

    (d) Would it be fairer in this case for this matter to be the subject of a court order rather than an agreement?

    (ix) If having done all this and, if necessary, having taken further advice (as above and including where necessary legal advice), the social worker then considers that a fully informed consent has been received from a capacitous mother in circumstances where removal is necessary and proportionate, consent may be acted upon.

    (x) In the light of the foregoing, local authorities may want to approach with great care the obtaining of s 20 agreements from mothers in the aftermath of birth, especially where there is no immediate danger to the child and where probably no order would be made.”

  10. I add that in cases where the parent is not fluent in English it is vital to ensure that the parent has a proper understanding of what precisely they are being asked to agree to.
  11. The second problem relates to the form in which the consent of the parent(s) is recorded. There is, in law, no requirement for the agreement to be in or evidenced by writing: R (G) v Nottingham City Council and Nottingham University Hospital [2008] EWHC 400 (Admin), [2008] 1 FLR 1668, para 53. But a prudent local authority will surely always wish to ensure that an alleged parental consent in such a case is properly recorded in writing and evidenced by the parent’s signature.
  12. A feature of recent cases has been the serious deficiencies apparent in the drafting of too many section 20 agreements. In Re W (Children) [2014] EWCA Civ 1065, we expressed some pungent observations about the form of an agreement which in places was barely literate. Tomlinson LJ (para 41) described the agreement as “almost comical in the manner in which it apparently proclaims that it has been entered into under something approaching duress.” In Williams and anor v London Borough of Hackney [2015] EWHC 2629 (QB), the Deputy Judge was exceedingly critical (para 65) both of the terms of the agreement and of the circumstances in which the parents’ ‘consent’ had been obtained. There had, he said, been “compulsion in disguise” and “such agreement or acquiescence as took place was not fairly obtained.”
  13. The third problem relates to the fact that, far too often, the arrangements under section 20 are allowed to continue for far too long. This needs no elaboration.
  14. This is related to the fourth problem, the seeming reluctance of local authorities to return the child to the parent(s) immediately upon a withdrawal of parental consent. It is important for local authorities to recognise that, as section 20(8) of the 1989 Act provides:

    “Any person who has parental responsibility for a child may at any time remove the child from accommodation provided by or on behalf of the local authority under this section.”

    This means what it says. A local authority which fails to permit a parent to remove a child in circumstances within section 20(8) acts unlawfully, exposes itself to proceedings at the suit of the parent and may even be guilty of a criminal offence. A parent in that position could bring a claim against the local authority for judicial review or, indeed, seek an immediate writ of habeas corpus against the local authority. I should add that I am exceedingly sceptical as to whether a parent can lawfully contract out of section 20(8) in advance, as by agreeing with the local authority to give a specified period of notice before exercising their section 20(8) right.

  15. It follows, in my judgment, that for the future good practice requires the following, in addition to proper compliance with the guidance given by Hedley J which I have set out above: i) Wherever possible the agreement of a parent to the accommodation of their child under section 20 should be properly recorded in writing and evidenced by the parent’s signature.

    ii) The written document should be clear and precise as to its terms, drafted in simple and straight-forward language that the particular parent can readily understand.

    iii) The written document should spell out, following the language of section 20(8), that the parent can “remove the child” from the local authority accommodation “at any time”.

    iv) The written document should not seek to impose any fetters on the exercise of the parent’s right under section 20(8).

    v) Where the parent is not fluent in English, the written document should be translated into the parent’s own language and the parent should sign the foreign language text, adding, in the parent’s language, words to the effect that ‘I have read this document and I agree to its terms.’

  16. The misuse and abuse of section 20 in this context is not just a matter of bad practice. It is wrong; it is a denial of the fundamental rights of both the parent and the child; it will no longer be tolerated; and it must stop. Judges will and must be alert to the problem and pro-active in putting an end to it. From now on, local authorities which use section 20 as a prelude to care proceedings for lengthy periods or which fail to follow the good practice I have identified, can expect to be subjected to probing questioning by the court. If the answers are not satisfactory, the local authority can expect stringent criticism and possible exposure to successful claims for damages.

 

The marker is down then.  Any LA facing a challenge about misuse of section 20 is on notice that damages may follow, and certainly where the misuse begins after today’s judgment one would expect damages to play a part.

 

The President also tackles here something which has been on my mind for a month. The practice by which agreement is reached that an Interim Care Order is not needed, because the parent agrees (either in a section 20 written agreement) or in a preamble in the Court order that they “agree to section 20 accommodation and agree not to remove without giving seven days notice”   – that is a fairly common compromise which avoids the need for an ICO or to have a fight in Court about the child’s legal status where it is agreed by the parents that the child should stay in foster care whilst assessments are carried out.

 

As the President says here

 

para 169

 I should add that I am exceedingly sceptical as to whether a parent can lawfully contract out of section 20(8) in advance, as by agreeing with the local authority to give a specified period of notice before exercising their section 20(8) right.

 

and here

para 170

iv) The written document should not seek to impose any fetters on the exercise of the parent’s right under section 20(8)

 

I don’t think that this is legally permissable any longer. (The Court of Appeal could, of course, have said explicitly that such a fetter can only be made where the parent agrees after having had independent legal advice, but they didn’t)

That means that Courts up and down the country are going to be faced with arguments as to whether the right thing for a child is to make an Interim Care Order, OR to rely on a section 20 agreement that could be withdrawn at any time  (including the obvious nightmare scenarios of “twenty minutes after we leave Court” or “at five to five on a Friday night” or “at 5pm on Christmas Eve).

 

The other thrust of the President’s comments on section 20 (8) objections are that as a result, surely even a delay in return of the child to place the matter before the Court for an EPO hearing is going to be a breach unless the parents themselves agree to that course of action.  That in turn raises the spectre of an increase in children being taken into Police Protection, since a forseeable outcome of this case is:-

 

(A) Parent says at 4.55pm on Friday “I want little Johnny home now, I object to section 20”

(B) LA are in breach of the Act and may be committing a criminal offence if that child is not on his way home by 4.56pm

(C) Courts aren’t likely to be able to hear an EPO application on one minutes notice

(D) The police remove under Police Protection instead

 

  [I seriously don’t recommend that as an option as a result of the many cases which batter social workers and police officers for misuse of Police Protection, but I do wonder whether the current case law on Police Protection really works after Re N  – those cases making it plain that it should be the Court decision not a police decision only work if there is time to place the matter before the Court.  BUT until one of them is challenged and the law on Police Protection changes, almost any removal under Police Protection can be scrutinised and perhap[s condemned.  And of course the alternative to THAT, is that more and more cases will instead find their way into care proceedings.  I think that the decisions on Police Protection and section 20 are right, but if we have learned nothing else since the Family Justice Review it should be that fixing one problem often has substantial unintended consequences and causes another problem elsewhere]

 

So, LA lawyers up and down the country, get hold of the current section 20 agreement, and rewrite it to comply with this judgment.

Fast and the Furious – Tunbridge Wells Drift

 

 

Okay, this piece isn’t really about Vin Diesel and The Rock racing cars around the backstreets of Kent. But it is about a case about  Medway (which is sort of near Kent) weren’t fast, and as a result the Judge got furious. And where the central issue was drift.  Section 20 drift, y’all.

(*Tunbridge Wells have done nothing wrong in this story – I just needed a “T” town for the Tokyo Drift reference. )

 

I’ve been writing about section 20 drift for a while, but perhaps given that this is a really strong judgment, it is worth a quick recap.  The Human Rights Act compensation to be paid to the mother by Medway was £20,000 and to the child also £20,000.   (And possibly costs to follow – see bottom of this post for an explanation of that)

 

 

  • Without a court forum it was solely the local authority that empowered itself to make decisions about a child unlawfully held by them, with simply a check in the form of the IRO system on the progress and welfare of a child in local authority care (and which system I consider further below).
  • T drifted in foster care without any clear focus on her contact, her need for therapy or her and her Mother’s rights to family life. I find shocking the inattention to contact, such that Medway Council is not even able to specify clearly what has and has not taken place, but is obliged to admit to serious gaps in contact and flaws in its support for this essential aspect of their family life. There would not only have arisen a duty under s34 Children Act 1989 to promote contact if an ICO were in place, but both T and Mother would have had a voice, legal advice and representation within proceedings to pursue their concerns about her accommodation, care plan, therapeutic needs and contact and Medway Council ‘s care of T would have been subject to the necessary judicial scrutiny applying the relevant careful tests relating to the threshold and welfare criteria set out in the Children Act to ensure interference with their family life was in T’s best interests, necessary and proportionate.

 

 

Section 20 is the power under the Children Act 1989 for children to be in foster care without a Court order – it is categorised as a voluntary foster placement. Typically, the parents are asked to consent, or even they come forward and say that they can’t manage, aren’t coping or the child needs a break.  Section 20 can be a really useful tool – if there’s genuine cooperation between the parents and the social worker, nobody wants to force the case into Court and up the stakes.

Where it starts to get problematic, as we’ve seen from a number of cases over the last three years, is where the consent and cooperation isn’t that genuine but that parents either don’t understand or have explained to them what section 20 really is and that they can say no, or are pressured/cajoled/threatened into agreeing, or in the latest spate of cases where a Local Authority is relying on a parent simply not objecting to the foster placement.  There are reasons why a parent might not come forward and object – most obviously that without access to a lawyer or it being explained they don’t even know that they can, or they are afraid of rocking the boat, or they are having faith that the system will work and do the right thing, or that they are intimidated that if they object then the case will be rushed off to Court and that this will be bad for them.

So ultimately, section 20 drift cases are about an imbalance of power – the State is taking advantage of the fact that parents without access to a lawyer won’t object or will agree to section 20.  And so it becomes an alternative to going into Court proceedings. Court proceedings are expensive, and involve a lot of work (going to Court, writing statements and chronologies etc) and of course in Court social workers don’t necessarily get things their own way and the Court can disagree with them.  So there can be a temptation, if the parents aren’t demanding the child back, to just keep going with the section 20 foster placement. And this of course is the drift element – these children can wait months or even longer, sat in limbo – nobody has decided whether the child can ever go home or whether the child’s future lays elsewhere, the case just drifts.  By the time the case finally gets to Court, that relationship between child and parent can be hard to put back together, and the problems the parent has may take time to address and it can be harder for them to get the child back.

Section 20 drift, in short, is bad.

It may be happening more as a result of a series of pressures – firstly a general demand within Local Authorities to save money and cut costs (due to significant cuts to their budgets) and secondly the reforms to Care proceedings that mean that more and more is expected to be done before going to Court – there can be a temptation to keep the case out of Court until all of the assessments are done and everything is just perfect. It is a bit of an unintended consequence – which we’re seeing a lot of since the PLO (Public Law Outline) reforms came into being.  This isn’t a problem limited to Medway here, or Brent as in the last reported case, or Gloucester/Bristol where their Judge has really seized the issue.  I’ve worked in a lot of Local Authorities, I’ve worked against a lot of Local Authorities and I’ve seen it all around the country.

 

That’s the background.

On with this case

Medway Council v M &T 2015

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2015/B164.html

 

This case was decided by Her Honour Judge Lazarus  (readers may recall her from the case where a mother tape recorded a foster carer being dreadfully abusive to her https://suesspiciousminds.com/2015/06/03/tape-recording-paying-off/   )

 

When the child T, was five, she came to the attention of Medway Council, and her mother M, was having mental health problems and was detained under the Mental Health Act. Medway placed the child in foster care, but didn’t actually have mum’s consent (she probably would not have had capacity to give it in any event)

 

 

 

  • T was born on 9.1.08, making her 7 years 9 months old now, and just 5 when she first came to the notice of Medway Council. This was due to a referral made on 8.2.13 by T’s school that T was being collected by a number of adults and concerns that Mother may be a victim of trafficking. Coincidentally, within a few days T was placed in emergency foster care, as her Mother was detained in hospital under the Mental Health Act on 11.2.13.
  • It is clear that Mother was too unwell to discuss T’s accommodation and there are no records whatsoever of any discussion with Mother of T’s whereabouts and care until her discharge in August 2013. It is likely, and there is no evidence to the contrary, that there was no proper explanation to her within this six month period, and Medway Council do not suggest there was, albeit I accept that for some of this time she would have been suffering from severe and disabling mental ill-health. There is certainly no document suggesting that there was any agreement by Mother to this accommodation. What Medway Council claims is that this was a different kind of lawful accommodation under s20, until she was well enough to consider T’s accommodation by Medway Council. It was not, and I shall deal with this further below.

 

 

That argument you may recall from the case I wrote about last week, decided by Her Honour Judge Rowe QC  – in which she decided that the power under section 20 needed to be exercised with capacitious consent, and not merely relying on the absence of objection.

 

https://suesspiciousminds.com/2015/10/12/unlawful-removal-of-a-child-compensation-paid/

 

[That’s the one where I used the comparison of a 10 year old assuming that it was okay to eat all of the Penguin biscuits whilst his mum is upstairs because “mum didn’t tell me that I COULDN’T]

 

In this case, T remained in foster care ostensibly under section 20 until care proceedings were issued – the period involved was 2 years and 3 months. She was in ‘voluntary’ foster care rom February 2013 until proceedings were finally issued in May 2015.  The mother had not even known that this had happened until August 2013, some SIX MONTHS after the child was taken into foster care.  Mother and baby are currently together in a specialist foster placement, and I wish them both well.  As the Judge points out, this is the longest reported case of section 20 drift.

 

The Judge went through everything very carefully (it is an extremely well-drawn judgment and would be recommended reading for anyone dealing with such a case – particularly the analysis of damages)

 

The conclusions were :-

CONCLUSION

 

  • For all of the above reasons I find that Medway Council ‘s accommodation of T and her removal from her Mother was unlawful, and as a result I have no need to go on to consider whether it was ‘necessary’ within the meaning of Article 8(2) ECHR.
  • I also find that Medway Council failed to issue proceedings in a proper and timely manner. This was despite warnings from June 2013 onwards. I have not found it possible to understand why there arose the original misunderstanding of the correct legal approach, why the advice given was not followed, why further legal planning meetings were not held until 2015, nor even why proceedings were not issued immediately in 2015 once the matter was looked at again by Ms Cross in January. The period involved is 2 years and 3 months, the longest currently reported in any case reported on this issue to date.

 

REMEDIES – JUST SATISFACTION

A. DECLARATIONS

 

  • T and Mother are entitled to the following declarations:

 

a. The local authority breached their rights under Article 8 ECHR in that they

i. Unlawfully removed T from Mother’s care on 11.2.13;

ii. Failed to obtain properly informed capacitous consent for T to be accommodated, or to consider/assess adequately the question of the Mother’s capacity to consent, at that date or subsequently;

iii. Accommodated T without Mother’s consent between 11.2.13 and 7.5.15;

iv. Failed to inform Mother adequately or involve her sufficiently in the decision-making process in relation to T;

v. Failed to address the issues relating to their relationship and contact between them adequately;

vi. Permitted unacceptable delay in addressing all of the above.

b. The local authority breached the rights of T and Mother under Article 6 ECHR in that they failed to issue proceedings in a timely manner.

 

What were Medway going to do to avoid this in the future?

 

 

  • Ms Cross has set out in her statement a number of vitally necessary improvements to Medway Council’s procedures and performance which I heartily welcome, particularly as this is not the only case where the use of s20 by Medway Council has been of concern (I am aware of at least three such others, including a reported judgment of mine earlier this year). The proof, as they say, will be in the pudding and depends on consistent and rigorous application of these reforms. They are as follows:

 

a. “During the period of January to July 2015 we have reviewed a number of cases where the child/ren are accommodated under S20 and where the child/ren are aged 12 and under. Where required we have issued or are issuing proceedings;. We have begun this process for children aged 12 and over and this will complete by 1st October 2015.

b. These reviews will continue and with immediate effect we have agreed that our Legal Gateway Panel, chaired by the Head of Service for Advice and Duty, Child Protection and Children in Need, will continue to monitor and track children already accommodated under S20 and will in future review all new cases involving s20;

c. The reduction in the use of S20 accommodation is built into all our service and improvement plans

d. We have reviewed how court work is undertaken within the LAC & Proceedings service and going forward will be targeting this work at the social workers who have the most suitable skills for court work;

e. Training has been provided in recent weeks for social workers on legal processes and proceedings, including the issue of s20, and this will continue on a rolling basis throughout the year.

f. We will be holding workshops on the use of S20 in September and October to provide clear guidance and support for Social Workers to ensure they are equipped to deal with any s20 issues arising and that they fully understand how S20 should be utilised and monitored. We will be providing new policies and procedures for staff across CSC in the use of s20. We plan to have these finalised by September 18th and we would be happy to share these with the Court and partner agencies including Cafcass at our quarterly meetings with the Judiciary and other agencies.

g. At monthly meetings between the 2 Heads of service from CSC and the Head of Legal S20 will be a standing agenda item and we will discuss each child who has been accommodated under s20 in the intervening month to satisfy ourselves that the appropriate management oversight and case related activity is in place.

h. I am in discussion with the Head of Adult Mental Health services to organise workshops for staff on capacity issues and deprivation of liberty (DOL’s) awareness. I hope that these workshops can be completed by 01.11.2015.

i. We have an adult mental health duty social worker located within our advice and duty services to advise and assist on those cases referred to us where the parent/s have a mental health or learning disability.

j. We are organising PAMs training for a number of staff so that we have more staff located within CSC who are able to assess parents with a learning disability in order that we can improve the service provided to them. We hope that this will have taken place by 01.12.2015.

k. We have increased management capacity and have formalised an Operational Manager post in each of the service areas. They will have direct responsibility for ensuring that court work proceeds in a timely manner and that work is of a high standard

l. S20 cases will also be reviewed at a monthly Permanence Panel wherein the permanence planning for LAC children is reviewed. This panel, chaired by my HoS colleague has attendees from Legal services, the Principle IRO and the adoption service.

m. As a result of this review I am also working with my colleagues to review the S20 form that parents sign and we are introducing a checklist for staff when seeking S20 accommodation to ensure that they address all the salient issues with parents. These issues will include considering the parent/s needs arising from a mental health/learning disability. These reviews will have completed by 31.08.2015 and the updated forms will be in use thereafter.

n. Finally the reviewing service have implemented a new review whereby the allocated IRO will review all cases between the LAC review (ie every 6 weeks) to ensure that all planning is on track. Where required concerns will be escalated to the appropriate Operational Manager and if there is still no resolution to the relevant Head of Service.”

 

 

Now, an important check and balance on social worker’s actions or inactions is supposed to be the Independent Reviewing Officer system. The IROs are supposed to hold social workers to account and make sure that things like this don’t happen.  There are regular reviews of children’s cases when they are in foster care. What ought to have happened at those reviews was that the IRO should have got the social workers to commit to either a plan of short assessment and then review the outcome, or make a decision to return the child to mother’s care, or make a decision that the child couldn’t go home and make the Court application to have the child’s long term future resolved. That didn’t happen.

 

LOOKED AFTER CHILDREN REVIEWS & INDEPENDENT REVIEWING OFFICERS

 

  • Ms Dunkin’s statement is helpful in its analysis of the history and the role of the Independent Reviewing Officers (IROs). They are supposed to perform a crucial role monitoring the care of Looked After children by reviewing and improving care planning and challenging drift and delay.
  • It is highly concerning that there have been five IROs in the last two years before proceedings were issued.
  • There was no IRO allocated until 18.3.13, five weeks after T was accommodated, so she was therefore not afforded a review of her care within 20 days of her accommodation as is required under the IRO Handbook and Placement Regulations. By the end of May that IRO is recorded as being on long term sick leave, and this is considered to be the reason why there is no minute of the first LAC review available.
  • Every LAC review minute inaccurately records/repeats the date of T’s accommodation as having taken place a month later than it occurred.
  • I commend the second IRO LC for correctly requiring a legal review of Medway Council’s position not to take proceedings (11.6.13), however despite it not having taken place by the next LAC review that LC conducted there then began the series of failures by LC and each subsequent IRO to challenge the Social Worker and team manager and director of services about failing to follow the clear recommendation initially made in June 2013.
  • No subsequent LAC reviews (18.9.13, 17.4.14, 8.7.14, 25.11.14) made any further clear recommendations as to parental responsibility, legal status or the use of s20 although the issues are mentioned, save to repeat (presumably by cut and paste as opposed to direct engagement with the issue) the same paragraph that set out the original recommendation of 11.6.13. By 8.7.14 what is added is a recommendation to seek legal advice with a view to securing T’s permanency. I am concerned that this betrays that the review process and LC failed to recognise both the full range of T’s needs and her and her Mother’s rights to family life, and had moved on simply to consider how to regularise what had by then become the status quo, T having been in foster care for almost 18 months at that date. This is particularly worrying as that LAC review meeting also demonstrated Mother’s vulnerability: she was accompanied by an extremely domineering ‘friend’ who described herself as an ‘auntie’ (and whom the Poppy Project is concerned may have had some involvement in Mother’s exploitation), and which led to a decision that all future meetings must be conducted with Mother alone.
  • Contact is touched on in the LAC reviews, but no clear picture or recommendation emerges. For example, the review of 17.4.14 mentions the reintroduction of contact I have already referred to, but little further is pursued. At the same meeting the problem with T’s passport and therefore the implementation of respite care during her foster carer’s holiday was raised and not addressed adequately, let alone robustly.
  • Overall, it is clear that although the fundamental fault lay with Medway Council by its social work and legal teams, the IRO process failed T, and by extension her M, by frequent changes of IRO and each one failing to rigorously apply themselves to the outstanding issues with attention or subsequently following up Medway Council’s failings, and if necessary escalating the issue. Ms Dunkin rightly concedes that previous IROs were not robust enough in this respect.
  • The statutory provisions, regulations and the guidance in the IRO Handbook covering the function and performance of IROs has been carefully reviewed elsewhere (see for example A & S (Children) v Lancashire County Council [2012] EWHC 1689 (Fam) at paragraphs 168-217 in particular). I do not propose to make specific declarations in relation to this aspect of the case. No such declarations are sought, and the appointment and management of IROs falls to the relevant local authority in any event. Additionally, I take into account that the correct recommendation was made in June 2013 and subsequently repeated, albeit it was not followed up adequately or at all, and was ignored by the local authority from the outset.
  • Ms Dunkin confirms that since October 2014 there has been a ‘root and branch review’ of the IRO service: immediate allocation of an IRO, with 90% of reviews now on time; improved IRO requirements and monitoring; performance and training audits with areas of improvement requiring action within a set timescale; direct input by IROs onto the electronic system at Medway Council so alerting team managers to implement their own quality and performance processes; shortened timescales for escalating challenges with a 20 day period before it is referred to the Director of Children’s Services; and mid-way reviews between LAC reviews enabling the IRO to check on progression of care plans and recommendations. Ms Dunkin as Principal Reviewing Officer now sits on the Legal Gateway Panel, resource panel and permanency panel.
  • Again these are welcome and necessary improvements, but their effectiveness will depend upon rigorous application of those improved practices.

 

 

 

On the issue of costs, we have a peculiar situation at present, where if a parent follows the law which is to make the Human Rights Act compensation claim within care proceedings, the Legal Aid Agency (the Government department who pay for the ‘free’ legal representation of a parent within care proceedings) will take all of the compensation to cover the legal costs, and the parent or child would only get anything left over.  That pretty much sucks.  Is there anyone who thinks that it is the Legal Aid Agency who should be compensated for what was done to mother and this child? Of course not.

 

So, apparently there are moves afoot to reverse this fairly recent and frankly moronic policy, and the Judge reserved the issues of costs until then.  If the policy doesn’t change, I’d expect an order that Medway also pay mother and T’s court costs, so that the compensation award goes to the mother and T rather than to a Government agency.

 

While I have assessed this award, I am asked for the time being not to order its payment nor to consider costs. This is at the request of the Official Solicitor who is currently investigating the most appropriate way to manage such an award for a protected party within care proceedings given that this is an award properly made within care proceedings (cf. Re L (Care Proceedings: Human Rights Claims) [2003] EWHC 665 (Fam)) and Mother is rightly in receipt of non-means and non-merits tested Legal Aid, but where concerns exist that the Legal Aid Agency may intend to take steps purporting to claim the whole costs of Mother’s representation in these care proceedings from that award. I shall therefore deal with the issue of ordering payment and costs at a later date.

 

 

The Judge here also considered the issue that I raised in the Her Honour Judge Rowe case, as to whether a very short piece of section 20 accommodation if the parent is unable to care for the child and one is establishing whether that’s a really short period  (i.e mum goes into hospital overnight, but the next day is released with medication and is fine) might be warranted – because the alternative is for the mother to be sectioned and on the same day social workers go to Court to get an Emergency Protection Order which would be awful if she happened to be released the next day.

 

It could be argued that where there is such an emergency as this, and indeed as in the Brent case, that it may be reasonable to wait for a short period without taking proceedings in order to review the parent’s progress in hospital in the event that their ability to care for their child might return. This would then avoid the stress and expense of time and resources in bringing unnecessary proceedings that would then have to be withdrawn. I concur with HHJ Rowe’s analysis that a month in the Brent case was too long. It may be reasonable, in rare and very clear cases where such enquiries could be reasonably considered as likely to bear fruit, to wait for at most a day or two while the local authority explored the possibility of an imminent return to a parent’s care. I bear in mind here that both in logic and principle such a period should be less than the time limit of 72 hours which is stipulated in the Children Act as applicable to PPOs. However, otherwise, save perhaps for the first few hours while the child’s status is considered, and advice sought and steps taken to issue proceedings, it must be right that proceedings are brought as immediately as possible for all the reasons discussed above.

 

I think that’s really sensible and pragmatic.  Like the Brent case, this is not legally binding precedent on anyone other than the parties who were in the case, but it would certainly be persuasive in such cases and equally a Local Authority who go beyond that 72 hour period are badly exposed to a Human Rights claim of this type.

Unlawful removal of a child, compensation paid

 

Her Honour Rowe QC considered this case, where a Local Authority removed a child and placed the child in foster care when at the time, the mother knew nothing about it.  It is a decision by a Circuit Judge and thus not any new binding law, but it is interesting and potentially important nonetheless.

 

Re AS (unlawful removal of a child) 2015

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2015/B150.html

In this case, both the mother and father had mental health problems. On the 9th October 2014, the mother suffered a significant episode of mental ill-health. She arranged for a neighbour to look after her son who was aged 9, and to take him to school. She called an ambulance to take her to hospital.

She was admitted to hospital and was detained under section 2 of the Mental Health Act.  She was not told until 16th October by letter (!) that Brent had removed her son from the care of the neighbour, whom they considered unsuitable on 9th October, using section 20 of the Children Act 1989.

Brent issued care proceedings on 11th November, and an ICO was made on 13th November 2014.  The child was thus in foster care on “section 20” from 9th October to 13th November, although mother had not consented, had not been asked to consent, and for at least some part of that time would not have had the capacity to consent.

It was not really in dispute that if Brent had sought an EPO or ICO at that time that the Court would have made one, the dispute was whether they had the legal authority to keep the child in foster care without an informed and capacitous consent from mother.

 

The argument from Brent hinged around the wording of section 20 (1) (c)

 

20 Provision of accommodation for children: general.

(1)Every local authority shall provide accommodation for any child in need within their area who appears to them to require accommodation as a result of—

(a)there being no person who has parental responsibility for him;

(b)his being lost or having been abandoned; or

(c)the person who has been caring for him being prevented (whether or not permanently, and for whatever reason) from providing him with suitable accommodation or care.

And on a technical basis, they might be said to be right. The Act itself never mentions a parent consenting to section 20.  The latter passages of section 20 make it plain that the LA cannot provide a child with section 20 accommodation if a parent with Parental Responsibility OBJECTS.  In practice therefore, most Local Authorities would seek the parents consent and for the parent to sign a consent form.  Brent’s argument here was that they didn’t need a consent, they just needed the absence of an objection. There was no objection, therefore the child was validly accommodated under s20(1)(c)

 And on the bare words of the statute, they are right.  However,  it would be a really technical defence to run, and it is not very surprising to me that it did not succeed.  If mum wasn’t asked or told, how could she object? She didn’t know it was happening. And if she HAD objected, Brent could have argued that she didn’t have capacity to object.

There’s quite a big difference between getting someone’s consent, and saying that something is okay because they didn’t object. Especially if they didn’t know.  It is a bit like being ten and saying “Well, mum didn’t tell me that I COULDN’T eat nine Penguin bisuits whilst she was upstairs”

OR

If for example, I have the opportunity for a canoodle with Keira Knightley, I would not expect to be able to tell Mrs Suesspicious Minds that it was perfectly fine because she had not explictly objected to my doing it.  Particularly if I didn’t tell her in advance that it was a possibility, thus giving her the chance to object.  I think that Mrs Suesspicious Minds would be absolutely entitled to take the view that this is the sort of thing that I’d need to raise in advance and that only with her explicit consent (which would not be forthcoming) would it be okay.  [I’d best make it plain that this is an illustrative hypothetical example only, and that I would never put myself in this situation. Not with Keira Knightley.  With Rachel Weisz?  No, I still wouldn’t. Honestly. ]

24. …I accept that the removal of AS took place in good faith and that removal would almost certainly have been sanctioned by the court had the local authority applied for an EPO, however for the reasons that follow I conclude that the removal was unlawful.

  1. The removal of a child from his parents by a local authority is a fundamental interference with the right of the parents and child to family life, and can only be carried out if the removal is “in accordance with the law”. The framework for the removal of a child is set out in the CA 1989, and with apologies as the principles are so well established I have set them out above.
  2. Both Hedley J and Munby J, as he then was, said clearly in the cases cited above that in the absence of consent, a child can be removed only in the circumstances set out in s38, s44 or s46 CA 1989. These provisions appear under Part IV and Part V, CA 1989. Each provision contains stringent safeguards intended to ensure that a removal is lawful. In particular: a. Each section refers to the s31 threshold criteria, requiring either that there are reasonable grounds to believe that the threshold criteria are met or, in relation to emergency provisions, that there is reasonable cause to so believe;b. Whilst removal under s46 (police protection) does not require prior judicial approval, the power to remove is strictly time limited to a maximum period of 72 hours. The police are under a duty to notify both the relevant local authority and the parents as soon as practicable of the steps taken;c. Removal under either s38 or s44 requires prior judicial approval;d. Even with prior judicial approval, an emergency protection order is strictly time limited so that any longer term sanction for continued removal follows an application for a care order and a further appearance before the court where all parties can be represented, where a Children’s Guardian will have had time to make initial enquiries and where all parties will have had an opportunity to consider the relevant evidence and will be able to make full submissions to the court, which can hear evidence if necessary.
  3. The provision of accommodation for children by the local authority is dealt with in Part III which, as Hedley J confirmed, addresses “Support for Children and Families”. As already cited above, Hedley J made clear that the emphasis in this Part is on partnership and “involves no compulsory curtailment of parental rights“. Self evidently the whole of s20 falls within Part III, and Hedley J made no distinction between the provision of accommodation under s20(1) and the provision of accommodation under s20(4). His judgment referred throughout to s20 as a whole.
  4. In the case of R(G) v Nottingham City Council referred to above, the President re-emphasised the clear principle that save perhaps in exceptional wardship cases (where in any event a High Court Judge would need to give prior judicial authority) in the absence of the agreement of the parent, removal of a child could only be achieved by the statutory routes in ss38, 44 or 46. On the facts of the Nottingham case, the local authority plainly considered that the mother was prevented from providing her baby with suitable care, just as the London Borough of Brent considered that this mother was prevented from providing AS with suitable care. If Mr Poole were correct in his analysis of s20(1)(c), then Nottingham City Council would have been entitled lawfully to remove the baby under the same provision. The President concluded without hesitation that the removal was unlawful.
  5. s20(1)(c) contains no requirement for the threshold criteria under s31(2) CA 1989 to be satisfied on any basis, even reasonable cause. If Mr Poole were correct, then a local authority could, on its own assessment of whether a parent was prevented from “providing a child with suitable care”, remove that child without any reference at all to the threshold criteria. The parents would have no forum in which to contest that assessment, and there is no application open to them under the provisions of the 1989 Act to challenge the local authority and seek the return of their child. The child would have no Children’s Guardian. There would be no parameters for the position after removal, there would be no requirement for the local authority to apply to court and there would be no time limit on the duration of the removal. In short there would be no safeguards to mirror those that are expressly included in ss38, 44 and 46. It would seem perverse if a local authority could more easily remove children from their parents in cases where the threshold criteria were not necessarily met than in cases where there were reasonable grounds to conclude that they were met.
  6. There is no authority supporting the proposition advanced by the local authority in this case and, as I have already indicated, that proposition appears to be in direct contravention to the principles established in the cases relied on by the mother.
  7. Finally, the structure of s20 itself is, I conclude, inconsistent with the proposition that parental consent is required where a local authority is acting under s20(4) but is not required where the local authority is acting under s20(1)(c). s20(7) prevents a local authority from accommodating a child if a parent objects and s20(8) permits anyone with parental responsibility to remove a child from accommodation. The important point is that both of these provisions apply to accommodation under “this section” ie s20 as a whole; they do not distinguish between accommodation under s20(1)(c) and s20(4).
  8. For all of these reasons I find that the removal of AS from his mother was unlawful. I therefore do not need to go on to consider whether the removal was “necessary” and therefore in accordance with Article 8(2) ECHR].

[I think that I’d probably distinguish the Nottingham case – in that case, mum DID know that the baby was being removed and she DID object. So clearly the social workers in the Nottingham case couldn’t have been using s20(1) (c) as a legal basis for removal. Nevertheless, THIS Court has found that s20(1) (c) requres active capacitious parental consent, not mertely the absence of an objection]

The question then arises about delay in issuing proceedings

If I find, as I have, that the removal of AS was unlawful, I am then asked to find that the local authority failed to issue proceedings in a timely manner, in breach of the mother’s Article 6 ECHR rights. Since the initial removal of AS was unlawful, it follows that until the local authority issued proceedings on 11 November 2014 and secured judicial approval for continued separation on 13 November 2014, AS was being kept separate from his mother unlawfully. The local authority did not issue proceedings in a timely manner. I was unable to understand the reason for this delay, especially given that at the legal planning meeting held on 13 October 2014 the local authority decided to issue care proceedings and the application itself, though issued only on 11 November 2014 was actually dated 7 October 2014.

The LA were ordered to pay £3,000 in compensation and £750 in costs.

The LA did try to escape compensation by saying that the declaration that they had breached mother’s human rights and their apology was sufficient. Sadly for them, they had tried one of those “modern” apologies, where the person says “I’m sorry that X made you feel bad” rather than “I’m sorry that I did X, that was wrong of me”

  1. The local authority reassured the court that it had at all times acted and will continue to act in good faith and with AS’s best interests at heart; no party suggested otherwise. Further the local authority submits that if I do find a breach, then the making of declarations together with the local authority’s apology to the mother together amount to just satisfaction. The local authority resists any award of damages or costs.
  2. For the mother, Miss James points to the terms of the apology and submits that it is not really an apology. The local authority, in counsel’s position statement, says “the Local Authority does not accept that its actions breached the mother or AS’s article 6 or 8 rights…The Local Authority offers a sincere apology to the mother for any upset that she feels LB Brent has caused her.” Miss James makes, I find, a good point. Miss James further makes clear the fact that the mother did not bring these proceedings for financial reasons; she was and has throughout remained upset and distressed about the manner of AS’s removal and she wants to make sure that this could not happen again to another child.

 

 

I think I might have tried another line – I’m not sure it would have worked either, but I would have considered it. On 9th October, the LA or any other LA, could have had no idea whether mum might be suffering from a really short episode of ill-health and be home the next day, or whether she might be ill for six weeks or more.  As they wouldn’t be able to rely on mum having capacity to sign a s20 consent  (pace Hedley J’s decision) and they can’t rely on s20 (1) (c) if the Judge is right here, that puts any LA where a mother has an episode of mental ill-health which might mean them being hospitalised in a position where they HAVE to seek an EPO / ICO.  That might in itself not be a terribly healthy thing for mum to hear at a time when she is getting treatment, and might wildly escalate a situation which could, after all, have been resolved the very next day with mum getting discharged with a change in medication.

 

The ultimate thrust of this judicial decision is to drive LA’s to issue care proceedings the moment that a mother or father providing care for a child is taken to hospital or has an episode of florid behaviour.  That might led to a number of care proceedings being issued prematurely, and also to a situation where mothers feel undermined and criticised by professionals just at a time when they need support and a working relationship.

You might say that making use of s20(1) (c) as a very short term holding position so that the child can be cared for whilst it is established whether the episode of mental ill-health is very short-lived and can be stabilised in a day or two, might be much more illustrative of working in partnership than dashing off to Court at a time when mother is unwell, stressed and anxious and where she won’t have capacity to instruct someone to fight the case, won’t have an Official Solicitor to represent her, may not actually be allowed by the hospital to be present and will be told that a Court are ruling that she presents a risk to her child EVEN THOUGH she has recognised that she is unwell and asked for help.

 

(I’d have to concede that in this particular case there are some major problems with that argument…firstly taking the child away from a neighbour who mum has asked to care for the child and who is willing to do it doesn’t really help my argument here, and secondly that NOT TELLING mum for a week doesn’t help in the slightest.  I’d mean more in cases where no alternative care provision has been made and mum is told immediately or as soon as practicable. )

 

But ultimately the Court interpreting that s20 (1) (c) requires active parental consent also puts LA’s in a position where they’d have to go to Court for a parent who is in a road-traffic accident and who is in a coma. The child can’t be accommodated under s20 (1) (c), the parent can’t consent. If the parent hasn’t got someone else who steps in to look after the child, how does this work?   You couldn’t conceivably argue that the child is at risk of harm from the parent, but what are you going to do?   [Accommodate, and take the chance of being sued afterwards is probably the answer]

Bad week for Gloucestershire continues to get worse

I wrote on Wednesday about Gloucestershire social workers getting a hard time from His Honour Judge Wildblood QC, and it is only Friday and they are getting another. For many of the same issues

 

 

C1 and C2 (Children :Section 20 of the Children Act) 2015

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2015/B149.html

 

  1. This is the third case that I have seen this week where this Local Authority has allowed there to be protracted use of the accommodation of children under section 20 of The Children Act 1989. Without descending into full legal analysis of the statute ‘section 20 accommodation’ arises when a parent agrees that a Local Authority should arrange where a child is to live. With their mother’s agreement, therefore, the two children involved in this case went to live with foster carers in September 2013 and have remained with the same carers for over two years. In its own case summary the Local Authority says: ‘the Local Authority is aware that there has been delay in bringing this matter before the court and entirely accepts this is inappropriate and will attract judicial criticism’. It does.
  2. The one saving feature of this case is that the foster carers, through their dedication to these children, are now offering them a permanent home. However, initially, they were short-term carers for the children and there is still no certainty about where the children will live because, as yet, there is no agreement about the orders that will be made. It appears that the mother may agree to the children remaining with the foster carers. It also appears that the putative fathers may also agree to this. The guardian has proposed that there needs to be further assessment of the foster carers before orders are made (and I deal with that point later).
  3. The upshot is that, for two years, nobody has been able to tell these children where they will be living and that remains the current state of affairs. The only way that certainty can be achieved is by making court orders. For some inexplicable reason the Local Authority chose not to bring the case before the court until now.
  4. Over the past year I have i) met with this Local Authority on a number of occasions to discuss the issue of the protracted use of s 20 accommodation, ii) attended conferences in this area at which I have spoken on this issue, iii) issued newsletters where I have written about it, iv) placed judgments about it on the Bailii website, v) spoken to other judges and magistrates in this area all of whom seem to share my opinion and are also trying to combat what is happening and vi) raised the issue with the Local Family Justice Board.
  5. Where this type of very bad practice arises it is not possible for a judge to undo the past. The only thing that I can do, now, is to publish judgments where this occurs so that the public know what is being done in its name by this Local Authority in a bid to prevent other children experiencing the same procedures. The firm drive of the courts to deal with cases expeditiously in accordance with 32 of The Children Act 1989, as amended, (i.e. keeping cases to no more than a 26 week timetable) is of no benefit to the child if the delay during the overall period of state intervention remains the same because of procedures that are followed before the case is brought before the court.
  6. The effect of this type of procedure is not only that it is patently wrong from the point of view of the welfare of children and in the full spectrum of family difficulties that it creates for foster carers. It also means that limited resources and money are being taken up in a way that expedition would avoid. In the plainest possible language it takes much more time and money for a delayed procedure to be followed than an expeditious one. Inefficiency costs more than efficiency and takes up more time. It also means that the task of sorting out what is best for the children becomes even more complex than it would otherwise be with repeated episodes of crisis management.
  7. For these children not to know for two years where they will be living, who will be caring for them, where they will be going to school, with whom they can make friends and when decisions will be made about them is bound to have a profound effect on their emotional welfare. It is inevitable that the children form attachments to their current carers and do so without knowing whether those attachments will persist.
  8. The guardian says this in her initial assessment: ‘as a consequence of the significant delay to issuing these proceedings the two children have been deprived of having care that could be regarded by them as permanent. It is likely that this has had a significant impact upon the children’s ability to feel secure and this combined with the children’s early experiences had an impact on their personality development and attachment style. This I believe will impact upon their ability to regulate their emotions, feel secure and develop a sense of self-worth. They and any carer are likely to require support with this impact…the children were accommodated under section 20 on 2/9/2013. I am unable to evidence any reason or explanation for the delay in issuing proceedings’.
  9. Over the past two years when these children have sought comfort or reassurance about the future nobody will have been able to tell them what the future holds. In my experience schools do excellent jobs when this type of issue arises but the burden that this type arrangement places on teachers is immense – for instance, how can schools or nurseries protect the emotional welfare of children in these circumstances and what happens when there are discussions or projects at school about families, holidays or future plans?

 

 

[Also note, that despite a period of nearly two years in section 20 foster care  The putative father of the eldest child underwent DNA testing only yesterday ]

 

Powerful words.  The Judge here is quite right – the delay in section 20 cases coming before the Court is one that harms children.  The Government have tackled the delay that occurs within proceedings (firstly by the clause in the Children Act 1989 that specifically says that delay within proceedings is harmful to children and to be avoided if possible, and latterly by introducing the Children and Families Act 2014 to try to make care proceedings be resolved within 6 months).

 

The delay BEFORE proceedings are issued though, has not been tackled. It may even be that the introduction of the Children and Families Act actually made it worse – because there’s a relatively short space of time once the care proceedings start for the social worker to get absolutely everything done and the case can be finished, it can be tempting to not start the case until almost all of that is done. Which can mean, in a case where parents aren’t demanding the return of the child or their lawyer sending angry letters, that there’s delay for the child.

It may be that all that the Children and Families Act 26 week edict has done is “Shift the Drift” so that most of it happens before Court proceedings. Which is worse, because at least when the case is in Court, everyone has a lawyer and knows their rights and a Judge can control the timetable. Section 20 drift is a real problem.

 

Here, this was a case that was inevitably going to need care proceedings. The children were 3 years old and 15 months old when they came into foster care, and they came into foster care as a result of suspicious bruising.  And there was a background of concerns that went back to 2010. That was always likely to need to be resolved by a Court, and it was always the case that decisions needed to be made for these children quickly, so that wherever they were going to live permanently that could be done and the children settled.

It isn’t a problem that only happens in Gloucester, not by any stretch of the imagination. But Gloucester have a Judge who has realised the scope and nature of this problem and is going to express displeasure about it each and every time.

 

What would be some practical proposals, if one was to legislate to fix it?

 

Well, I would start with the requirement that any use of section 20 where the child is in care for more than a fortnight must go through the PLO procedure – that means the parents get sent a letter about the concerns and future plans and more importantly attend a meeting and get legal advice. That means that they will absolutely know that they have the right to remove the child from section 20 and can make the Local Authority ‘put up or shut up’ – either take the case to Court and persuade a Judge that the child needs to stay in foster care or to return the child.

Another helpful addition might be to incorporate into legislation that a Local Authority can’t take a section 20 consent given in September 2013 and be still relying on it in March 2015. What would be wrong with saying that section 20 consent must be obtained afresh after 20 days, then 3 months after that, and then every 6 months thereafter?   [That is the same timing as LAC reviews, and thus the IRO can be charged with establishing at the LAC review whether there is genuine and informed parental consent to the next period of section 20 accommodation, and if not the LA are to ‘put up or shut up’]

 

Could a Judge impose such stipulations on a Local Authority without legislation?   I don’t think that even the President would have such power by way of Practice Direction – those powers really only extend to what happens within care proceedings – a Judge can’t really fetter what a Local Authority can do before care proceedings are initiated.

 

An option available to parents is to make a claim under the Human Rights Act – as can be seen from the last blog, even if the section 20 consent is given freely and on an informed basis, there is the possibility of a claim on the basis that the State’s actions in using section 20 to keep the child in care rather than working actively on either rehabilitation or putting the matter before the Court are not proportionate.

 

[In the Hackney case in the last blog, the parents would have lost on the ‘proportionality’ argument based on the facts in that case, but the section 20 was only for two months, not nearly two years as here]

 

 

The other noteworthy element of this case was the Guardian’s tentative suggestion that there be a psychologist to assess the children. I wholeheartedly agree with the judicial approach here.

 

The guardian has suggested that she may seek an order for a psychological assessment of the attachment of the children to the foster carers; I have made it very plain that, having regard to the necessity test in Section 13 of The Children and Families Act 2014, I think it highly unlikely that I would make an order to that effect since the attachment between the children and the foster carers: a) is obvious; b) can be dealt with by evidence from schools, nurseries, health authorities, social workers and the guardian c) does not raise any evident psychological issues that could not easily be dealt with by the social worker and guardian. Further, by the time that a psychological report had been produced (e.g. in 3+ months time) and the case has come back to court the children would have been with the foster carers for at least two years and about four months so I cannot begin to imagine that psychological evidence would add anything to what was obvious about the attachment between the foster carers and the children by then.

 

 

I think I might be taking this to Bristol Family Court if I was cursed with having to do a section 20 drift case next week.

 

 

Your Honour, I represent the Local Authority. Did you get the exhibit to my position statement?

 

 

 

Couple win damages for Hackney keeping their children in care

 

[There are some VERY IMPORTANT rulings about section 20 in this judgment, which was in the High Court. Practitioners, particularly social workers or those who advise social workers are urged to read it in full. I will put a huge IMPORTANT flag on the key passages]

 

This story came to my attention via The Guardian

http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2015/sep/17/couple-win-damages-from-hackney-after-children-wrongly-kept-in-care

 

The bare bones of this story were that a Hackney family had eight children removed from their care by the police, that the main issue was home conditions that could be fixed very quickly, and that the parents successfully sued Hackney under a variety of methods (including the one that’s always popular Beneath the Line here with commenters, “misfeasance in public office” ) and won on the Human Rights Act part of the case, receiving £10,000 compensation each.

The report is good, clear and compelling, and accurate.   [The author has clearly read the judgment and quotes the Judge and captures the essence of the story]

 

That led me to the judgment, which was not in the Family Court but in the Chancery part of the High Court.

 

 

Williams and Another v London Borough of Hackney

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/QB/2015/2629.html

 

  1. If ever there was a case illustrating the challenges that face children, parents, public authorities, and the courts when concerns are raised about the safety and welfare of children it is this. A relatively trivial incident on 5 July 2007, followed by an allegation made by a young child in potential trouble, led to the exposure of issues about the upbringing of a large family in respect of whom there had been no previous concerns. Eight children, including a young baby, were removed from their parents’ care and distributed to foster homes. A swift consideration of the welfare issues concluded that if some simple improvements were made to their home, the children could return home. Yet it was some 2 months before the children returned to their parents, after experiencing a variety of foster placements, some of which were of dubious quality. A criminal investigation led to a 20-count indictment against the parents, but in the end, 2 years later, no evidence was offered and the parents were acquitted. The parents’ complaints about the handling of their case by the defendants were considered in a complaints process over a period of nearly six years culminating in a final decision of the Local Government Ombudsman, issued on 22 April 2013. In spite of their complaints being upheld in part, and the exoneration of their character in the Crown Court, the claimants believe their grievances have not been properly addressed and therefore bring these proceedings, ending in this trial, eight years after this unfortunate incident started. Fortunately it is not my task to adjudicate on more than a small fraction of what has occurred, but the overall picture is not a happy one.
  2. The claimants bring this claim against the London Borough of Hackney [“Hackney”] in their own right, and not on behalf of any of their children. They accept that the authorities acted lawfully in the initial action of taking their children into foster care under the authority of what has been described as police protection order. However, they claim damages for what they say were the unlawful actions of the defendant authority and its officers in keeping the children of the claimants in authority controlled foster care after the expiry of the effect of the police order. The causes of action alleged are misfeasance in public office, breach of statutory duty, negligence, religious discrimination and breach of the parents’ Article 8 human rights. The defendant denies liability in any of these causes of action.

 

 

The next bit, which explains how the children came into care, does throw into the mix a brand new element, that there were concerns about physical abuse of the children, not just a dirty or untidy house

 

The claimants, John and Adenike Williams, have been married for 24 years. They have 8 children whose ages at the time of the matters about which they complain ranged from 8 months to 14 years. All the children lived at home, and no concerns were raised about the manner in which their parents were caring for them until one of them was arrested on suspicion of shoplifting on 5th July 2007. This child was said to have told the police that he had been beaten by his father with a belt, as an explanation for a bruise on his face. The police visited the family home and were of the opinion that it was not in a fit state to be accommodation for the children. They alerted the defendant to their concerns. The police also initiated a Police Protection Order under section 46 of the Children Act 1989, and the defendants made emergency arrangements to accommodate them in foster homes. The police order authorised these arrangements for 72 hours. On 6th July, in circumstances I will have to examine in some detail, the parents signed a form of agreement which the defendants assert authorised them to continue to accommodate the children away from their parents, an assertion the claimants dispute. The children did not in fact return to live with their parents until 11th September 2007. It is right to record at the outset of this judgment, that, although the claimants were eventually charged with various offences relating to their treatment of the children, following strong observations made by a Crown Court judge, no evidence was offered, and a not guilty verdict was entered on all the charges.

 

 

So, firstly, the period of time that the children spent in foster care, from 6th July 2007 until 11th September 2007, was purportedly under a written section 20 agreement.  That’s important, because obviously social workers themselves have no powers to remove children or keep them away from a parent. They can only do so if the parents agree (under section 20 of the Children Act 1989) or there is a Court order sanctioning this.

We will come later on to whether the parents had agreed section 20 accomodation (they disputed this)

 

Secondly, the physical injury and the allegation that father had hit the child with a belt.  I was interested to find this in the judgment:-

 

  1. On 5 July 2007 one of the Williams children was interviewed by the police. The child was reported said to have alleged that Mr Williams “regularly beats him and his siblings and had reported that [the child] had been beaten the previous evening as he had gone to the shop without his permission to buy some lollipops.” It was also reported that the child had attributed a mark below the eye to the father using a belt.
  2. The legality and justification, if any, for what was done following that report does not depend on whether the allegations made by the child were true but on the appropriateness of the reaction of the authorities to the potential risks to the children implicit in them. However the truth of the allegations of violence was put in issue.
  3. In examining the evidence before me it is important for me to bear in mind and record in this public judgment the conclusions which HH Judge Paul Kennedy reached in the Crown Court having examined the evidence before him in the criminal proceedings brought against the parents for assault, cruelty and child neglect. Having read the file, he urged the Crown to offer no evidence. In his remarks, made on 16 September 2008 he said this:These are persons of good character, who faced the quite enormous task of bringing up 8 young children in an overcrowded home. That they loved their children, that they wanted the best for them, that there were determined that the future held more for them than for what Mrs Williams described as “street kids” has never been in doubt and shines out from Mrs Williams’s interview. Whilst there is little doubt that conditions at home were chaotic, the Williams have accepted the help they were offered and, within a remarkably short time, have turned around a difficult and dangerous situation to one where all departments of Social Services are content and positive about the future.

    Following these observations no evidence was offered and the judge entered a verdict of Not Guilty on all counts.

  4. There was much evidence in these proceedings to confirm the view arrived at by the learned judge, and I am absolutely satisfied that Mr and Mrs Williams were loving parents who wanted only the best for their children. They had brought them up in what must have been challenging circumstances without reproach or concern until July 2007. Their anxiety and distress exhibited when they were separated from them, their reactions to the ordeals their children endured over the next few months, were as clear in their demeanour in the witness box in this hearing as they were from the contemporaneous documentation and the evidence of the two children who gave evidence. I have absolutely no doubt that the claimants were and remain loving and committed parents determined to do their best for all their children. Their sense of sadness at not being able to be reconciled with the child who made the allegations triggering the authorities’ concerns was palpable.
  5. Mr Williams denies that he beat his child as alleged in the police report. He told me that there was a troubled relationship with this child which, sadly, has never subsequently been repaired. He agreed that he did smack the children, but in the case of three of them on only a few occasions. In relation to the child who had made the allegation, Mr Williams said he had never smacked, or used a belt to smack, the child in the face. To my mind somewhat strangely, Mr Williams told me that he did not “recollect” punching this child in the face, an allegation made by this child to doctors in relation to a later incident in November 2009. In relation to a row that occurred in 2010 he said that he could not remember if the child had any resulting injuries, although he could not see any. He used similar expressions claiming a lack of memory on several occasions about incidents which appeared from his descriptions and the records of them to be dramatic. Of course to say something cannot be recollected can merely be a form of denial, but I sensed here that there was a degree of equivocation in Mr Williams’s answers. There was, however evidence before me that he did hit his children in the course of disciplining them. One of the adult children who gave evidence before me agreed that this was so. I was told by this witness that Mr Williams used a belt “sometimes but not always” if the children “really misbehaved, [were] really really bad”. The witness added, “sometimes he went a bit too far”. When I asked this witness what was meant by “misbehaving” in this context I was told this meant “arguing with mum, messing about outside or doing things repeatedly – that is when the belt came out“. Very much in favour of Mr and Mrs Williams is that whatever the nature of the discipline handed out certainly the two children who gave evidence clearly remained very close to their parents. There is no evidence that with the one exception described, any of the other children have a less close relationship.
  6. I am satisfied on the evidence before me that Mr Williams did administer what he believed to be justifiable discipline to his children, which included on occasion the use of a belt. It is distinctly possible that a belt was used on or shortly before 5 July, although the circumstances and the extent to which it was used cannot now be reliably established. The only relevance of these matters is that in the course of the involvement of the defendant’s officers with this family they would have seen an attitude towards discipline similar to that which I have seen in this court. It is this sort of factor which persuades me that the defendant was justified in considering that the allegations were evidence of a risk to the safety of the children which they could not ignore in determining whether to exercise their statutory powers. This is not in any way to contradict the very positive conclusions that both HH Judge Kennedy and I have reached about the general character of both claimants.

 

 

Whilst the Judge therefore found that these were loving parents who only wanted the best for their children, he did also find that the father had by way of  justifiable discipline hit his children with a belt.

 

How bad was the house when the police visited?

  1. In a statement for the police made on 27 July Mrs McLaughlin stated that she was “immediately struck by the chaotic, disorganised, dirty, unhygienic and filthy environment of the home.” It was her judgment that placements were required for the children “as I could not leave them in the dangerous and inappropriate environment in which they were living.” The cleanest room, where the TV was placed, had clothes strewn across it; it was dirty and had loose wires across it. The bathroom was extremely dirty; all areas in it were “ingrained with dirt and grease. It appears not to be used.” The toilet was in a similar condition. The mattress in one of the bedrooms was “dirty and rotten with dirty sheets on it“. Clothes were strewn across the room or were in piles against the walls. She stated that she could not find a clean pair or knickers for one of the younger children. The only clean clothes were adult male clothes in the wardrobe, still in their dry cleaning bags. In the kitchen the floor was filthy, and there was “no apparent food in the freezer – only plastic bags.” The cooker was dirty with burnt rice in the grime. She saw no food for the children. In the hallway, which was also dirty, there were loose wires across the floors and sockets hanging from the walls. The children were unkempt with matted hair, and dirty faces and clothes. They were extremely reluctant to engage with the social workers and the two eldest were “hostile“. One child had an apparent skin condition some parts of which were “weeping“. Mrs McLaughlin could find no medication in the home. In her oral evidence she told me that this was one of the worst homes she had ever been in, before or since. A statement made by another social worker on the visiting team, Mark Burgess, was to a similar effect.
  2. In her evidence to this court Mrs McLaughlin confirmed that she could clearly remember the dry cleaned suits. There was material covering the windows which made it dark. There were clothes piled up on the floor and wires across the room. Thee were bundles of sticks in each room,. The home smelt of urine. A police officer put a key into the grime on the bath “and it swallowed up the key“. The ‘fridge and cooker were very dirty. There was no food apart from a snapper fish in the freezer.

 

 

The Judge didn’t believe the allegation about the key (which I think is meant to indiccate the depth of the grime on the bath) , but that the photographs did show that the house was not in a state which was suitable to accommodate children of any age

 

  1. I consider that Mrs McLaughlin’s recollection of the state of the property has been affected by the passage of time, and in some limited respects is unintentionally exaggerated. For example, I doubt that it would be literally possible for a key to be “swallowed” in grime as she suggested. Furthermore Ms Toal’s recollection of what was reported with regard to the availability of clean underwear was that it had been difficult to find any rather than that there was none. Nonetheless the material to which I have just referred persuades me that, bluntly, the premises were in an appalling state. It is inevitable that social workers must as part of their duties see many homes which are less than perfect in their cleanliness and safety, but it is evident to me that the concerns expressed in the contemporaneous records were not exaggerated for forensic purposes but were genuine and substantially true. It is understandable that caring parents like Mr and Mrs Williams find it hard to accept the full extent of the deficiencies that have been described, but I cannot accept that the state as described represented a transient phenomenon caused by a short term illness. If there were any doubt it is laid to rest by the photographs produced to me by the claimants. These were put to witnesses, but their provenance was not a matter of formal evidence and is therefore uncertain. It appears, however, that they may have been taken by the police. It is possible they were taken after some, perhaps preliminary, attempt, had been made to start remedying the deficiencies. Nonetheless they show very concerning conditions. If there is more food in the freezer than the snapper just mentioned, it is contained in unwholesome looking bags. The fridge itself is filthy, as is the cooker and various other surfaces. There are indeed hazardous wires on the floor, even if they are not across the entire floor. There are piles of items in various places, and a tied bundle of sticks is clearly visible. Accordingly I am entirely satisfied that on 5 July 2007 the claimant’s home was not a suitable environment in which to accommodate children of any age.
  2. That the conditions in the home may not always have been unsuitable for children in this way received some support from the information the defendants obtained from the school attended by four of the children that they always looked clean and tidy. They had a 100% attendance and punctuality record, and there were no other concerns expressed. However this reassurance cannot outweigh the strength of the evidence of the actual observations made on 5 July by professional social workers whose findings, subject to the qualification mentioned above, have been, I am satisfied, substantially accurately described to me by Mrs McLaughlin. Further it was clearly reasonable for her and her colleagues to believe that such a state of affairs could not have come about during a few days or even weeks previously.

 

 

So it was clearly right for the police to have removed these children, and for an investigation to take place.

It is rightly not in dispute that the circumstances existing on 5 July justified immediate action to safeguard the welfare of the children and, in particular, it is accepted that the police decision to invoke their powers to protect children under section 46 of the Children Act 1989 was justified. A serious allegation of physical abuse had been made which clearly required investigation. The police arrested the parents and therefore those with parental responsibility were not in a position while in custody to look after the children. I am satisfied that the children presented as possibly neglected. The home was clearly in an unsuitable state to accommodate the children, even if an adult to care for them had been identified. However the relevance of these concerns extends beyond the immediate action taken by the police: it forms the background to the consideration of the subsequent actions of the defendants to which I must now turn.

 

 

Could the children have been placed with relatives, rather than coming into foster care?

 

I find it surprising that there is no contemporaneous record of the steps taken to look for alternative accommodation. However I note that in spite of the assertion made now by the claimants that family members were willing to take the children in, no such suggestion was made in the correspondence sent by their solicitor to which I will have to refer for other reasons below. Given the clear wish, indeed desperation, of the claimants to have their children back in the family rather than in separate and in some cases what they believed to be distinctly undesirable foster homes, I consider the absence of such a suggestion at the time inconsistent with any realistic chance of one or more family members having been willing or able to take on the challenging task at short notice of accommodating all or part of this large family. I conclude that throughout the period with which I am concerned no realistic alternatives were available, and that the defendants did probably take sufficient steps on 5 July 2007 to satisfy themselves of that position at the time.

 

 

The section 20 “agreement”

 

  1. On 6 July Mrs and Mrs Williams signed a document carrying the title “Safeguarding Agreement in respect of [their eight children]“. It was also signed by Ciara Toal. The circumstances in which it was signed, and its effect have been the subject of significant dispute between the parties and I must therefore set out what happened in some detail. Where there has been a significant dispute of fact I shall make my factual findings clear.
  2. After reciting the parties to it [the claimants and Hackney Children and Young Person’s Services] the “agreement” continued as follows This document was drawn up on Friday 6th of July 2007 and is a Safeguarding Agreement concerning the child mentioned above.

    This Safeguarding Agreement was drawn up in relation to all of the children. Although the agreement is not legally binding, it may have significance, should there be any court procedures in the future.

    We, Mr & Mrs Williams parents to all the above children, agree to the following:

    1. That all the children will remain in their foster placements for the present time.

    2. When contact takes place you will encourage the children to return to their placements and ensure [sic] them that this is a safe place.

    3. That we will behave appropriately while contact is taking place, ie assure the children that we love and care for them, show them affection.

    4. That we will not discuss with any of the children what has happened.

    5. To continue to comply with Hackney Children’s Social Care.

    In conclusion Hackney Children’s Social Care will seek legal advice with a view to protecting the children if it is found that parents are not complying with the contents of this Safeguarding Agreement.

 

 

That wording clearly is a section 20 agreement [if a badly drafted one, it does contain agreement to the children remaining in foster care
) and the Judge says that the document is signed. . If the parents had signed that, and had understood what they were signing then there’s no real case here. The home conditions were unacceptable for children, and it was clearly going to take a bit of time for that to be turned round. If the parents felt that the Local Authority were dragging their feet once the home conditions were good enough, their remedy was to object to section 20 continuing.

 

So there’s a mystery here, knowing that the Judge did award them compensation.  What’s the issue with the section 20 agreement?

 

By the time this document was signed all the claimants’ children had been placed in foster homes. Mr Williams’s account in his witness statement – supported formally by Mrs Williams in her witness statement – is that after their release from the police station he and his wife went to the defendant’s offices arriving at around 9.30 am. They met Mrs McLaughlin and asked for their children back. She told them that the defendant wanted to inspect the house and if it had been tidied up and cleaned they would return the children. She told them to return to the office at midday. Accordingly, he says, the claimants went home and cleaned and tidied it up. No-one attended to inspect it. On their return the defendant’s office they were met by Mrs McLaughlin and Ms Toal who told them that the police had now issued a Police Protection Order under which the defendant could hold he children for 72 hours. Ms McLaughlin then produced a document in which the defendant said the children would be released after 72 hours, and asked the claimants to sign it. Mr Williams said he wanted to speak to a solicitor before signing a document to which Mrs McLaughlin responded that the claimants should not speak to a solicitor as otherwise they would not get their children back. As the claimants were about to leave Mrs McLaughlin told them that unless they signed a document they would not see their children again. Because they were tired and did not understand what was happening they panicked and signed the document Mrs McLaughlin then said that they could see the children that afternoon. Mr Williams says he made it absolutely clear that the claimants wanted to take their children home but they were misled into signing the “agreement”.

 

 

So that’s the allegation, that the section 20 document was signed under duress – and importantly that when the parents said that they wanted to see a solicitor before they signed it, were strongly discouraged from doing so.

 

The Judge had to decide whether that was the case – not helped because there was not a contemporaneous account of the meeting

In assessing the evidence I have heard on the circumstances surrounding the signing of the so-called section 20 agreement, I have had regard to the fact that the claimants were on any view in a highly distressed and doubtless tired state when they met Mrs McLaughlin and Ms Toal. Their recollection of what they were told is likely to have been clouded by their understandable emotions, and indeed anger, at what had happened. They were vulnerable people without advice facing two officials vested with the powers of the state to take their children away, possibly indefinitely. The claimants were not therefore in an ideal position to understand the complexities of what they were being faced with. On other side, the two social workers were dealing with an unusual and fraught situation. The defendants had as a matter of urgency found themselves having to accommodate eight children, who themselves were showing signs of distress, against a background of apparently serious allegations of physical abuse, and a home which was without doubt at that moment unfit for accommodating children. Considerable, and to my mind laudable, energy had been devoted to inspecting the home and relocating the children in these challenging circumstances. The parents, however caring they wanted to be, were arguably not in a position to offer that care without being in breach of bail conditions. The notes of what happened are almost certainly not complete and understandably the officers’ direct recollection of what was said is also incomplete. However, given all the circumstances, I consider it likely that the claimants have built up a mistaken picture in their minds of what they were told, in part through misunderstanding at the time and in part through their distress at having to relive these events repeatedly over the intervening years. I prefer the account to be gained from the contemporaneous record as supplemented by the evidence of Mrs McLaughlin and Ms Toal where it conflicts with that of the parents. That does leave a number of points of serious concern about the process adopted to which I will return after examining the legal framework under which the consensual accommodation of children by a local authority is meant to occur.

 

 

The police bail confuses matters. The parents would have been in breach of their bail conditions if they had asked for and been given the children back.

 

This is IMPORTANT IMPORTANT IMPORTANT., the Judge here decided that the exisatence of bail conditions preventing a parent caring for a child DOES NOT MEAN that for the purposes of s20 the parent is prevented or incapbel to providing care for the child. The parent would still need to actively  consent to s20.

 

  1. Police bail
  2. Bail in this case was granted under the powers accorded to police by section 37 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. Conditions may be imposed by virtue of section 47. The person bailed has a right to apply to a magistrates court for a variation of the conditions: section 47 (1E), (1D). The conditions can be varied by the police. Breach of a bail condition entitles the police to re-arrest the bailed person: section 46(1A). Such a breach does not constitute a statutory offence: Regina v Ashley [2005] EWCA Crim 2571, [2004] 1 WLR 2057.
  3. It follows that any attempt by Mr and Mrs Williams to effect the return of their children home would not be an offence, unless, arguably, the conduct amounted to some substantive offence. Therefore the consequences of non-compliance would be most likely limited to a consideration by the police of whether to re-arrest the parents. The most likely immediate reaction to any attempt by the parents to take their children out of foster care would, or should, have been an urgent application by the defendants to the court for one of the available orders authorising them to retain the children in their care. Such an application would of course have enabled the parents to make representations to the court and, potentially give undertakings with regard to their care of the children and their plans for improving the home.

 

 

The existance of the bail conditions thus didn’t remove the need for a s20 agreement provided by consent.  Why is this IMPORTANT?  Because if a parent is arrested and has bail conditions and does not sign a s20 consent, the LA have to issue care proceedings – they can’t rely on the bail conditions themselves. And potentially any case where that HAS happened, could now be a Human Rights claim.

 

 

  1. The parties’ submissions on the validity of the section 20 agreement
  2. The claimants submit that the defendant had no power to keep their children away from them after the expiry of the PPO, 72 hours after it was made on 5 July 2007, without either a court order of one of the types described above, or the consent of the parents to a consensual arrangement pursuant to section 20. They submit that there was no valid consent obtained on 6 July for a number of reasons:

    a. The mother at least lacked the capacity to give such consent because of her mental illness or general distress.

    b. Neither parent was fully informed to enable them to fully understand the consequences of their giving a consent, to appreciate the options available, and to be in possession of all the material facts.

    c. They were coerced into signing the agreement by the threat of not seeing their children again.

    d. They were not told of their right to take their children home at any time

    e. There was no indication that the agreement was to have any effect after the expiry of the PPO.

 

 

 

Ready?  This next bit is IMPORTANT IMPORTANT IMPORTANT IMPORTANT  – the Judge here sets out that a section 20 agreement HAS to convey that the parents have the right to withdraw their consent.  He also suggest that the parent needs to be told of their right to take legal advice. That goes further than Hedley J’s case on section 20 (Coventry City Council v C, sometimes called Re CA). Don’t forget that at the time that the decisions happened in this case, Hedley J’s judgment had not been given, and wouldn’t be for another 8 years…

 

 

  1. Capacity for this purpose is equated to capacity as defined in the Mental Capacity Act 2005: see paragraph 37 of Coventry City Council v C [above]. I am satisfied that both Mr and Mrs Williams had the capacity to understand what they were told and the consequences of the decision they were being asked to make. They were distressed, but not so distressed that they lacked the capacity to make decisions. In my judgment this case is far removed from that of the newly delivered mother under consideration in C. Mr and Mrs Williams were able to express their wish to have their children returned as soon as possible, and to challenge the allegations made against them. They were capable of understanding what they were told. That their distress has resulted in their misunderstanding what they were told has more to do with the inadequacy of the information conveyed to them and its communication than their capacity to understand it.
  2. I do not consider the claimants were fully informed of the matters of which they should have been informed:

    a. Bearing in mind the threatening circumstances in which the “Safeguarding Agreement” was offered to the claimants, its form suffered from very similar defects to those described by Tomlinson LJ as being “comical“.

    i. On its face the agreement is said to have possible “significance” in court proceedings. The strong inference is that the “significance” would be adverse to the parents’ prospects of seeing their children back home. This is reinforced by the threat of the defendants to seek legal advice in the event of non-compliance by the parents; clearly such advice would be with a view to making an application to the court.

    ii. The document makes no reference to the legal basis on which the children are to be accommodated by the defendants. There is therefore no guidance for the parents as to the context of what they are signing.

    iii. The document contains only a list of obligations being imposed on the parents, with no reference to any obligations on the part of the defendants. In particular there is no mention of the parents’ legal right to withdraw their consent and require the return of their children.

    iv. The parents are required “to comply” with the defendants whatever that means. It has the look of a provision which requires the parents to comply with absolutely anything the defendants might require.

    b. There is no persuasive evidence that the parents were expressly told that that they had a right to take their children away from local authority provided accommodation at any time or to object to that provision and I accept that they were not. It is no justification for this omission that the bail condition prohibited unsupervised contact. As was pointed out there could have been a number of solutions, ranging from either the parents or the defendant persuading the police to vary bail to allow alternative accommodation with family and friends if any were identified who could help. There is also an issue about what the police would have done if the children had returned home. Breach of police bail is not an offence and there has been no evidence enabling me – or the claimants – to know what was likely to have happened. It is clear that this issue was not raised or discussed by Mrs McLaughlin and Ms Toal when obtaining the parents’ signatures to the agreement.

    c. There is no evidence that they were told, still less encouraged, to seek legal advice before signing the agreement.

    d. I agree that there was no clear indication offered as to the effect of the agreement following the expiry of the PPO.

    e. While I do not accept that the parents were told, or that the defendants’ officer intended to convey to them, that they would never see their children again if they did not enter the agreement, I do accept that this was what, in their distressed state, the claimants understood.

    f. In short the circumstances, combined with the inadequacies of the information conveyed, were such as to amount to the “compulsion in disguise” of the type described by Hedley J in the Coventry case. For the same reasons such agreement or acquiescence as took place was not fairly obtained.

  3. For these reasons I conclude that on 6 July there was no valid consent obtained from the parents such as to give the defendant authority to accommodate the children under section 20. It is therefore unnecessary to go on to consider the final part of the test, namely whether action under section 20 was a proportionate response to the circumstances facing the defendants at that time. Had I been satisfied that the parents had been fully and fairly informed of all relevant matters and given their consent, which I am not, I would have accepted that the circumstances were such that it would have been proportionate to take action to accommodate the children under section 20. The potential risks to the children posed by the condition of the family home, the parents’ apparent unwillingness to acknowledge the extent of the problem, the allegations of abuse which were under investigation, and, as I find, the absence at that time of any established alternative accommodation would have made such action a reasonable response.

 

Note that IF the parents had given a valid s20 consent, without the flaws in the process, the Judge was satisfied that on the FACTS of the case keeping the children in foster care until the home conditions were resolved was the right thing to do for them – it was a proportionate outcome. It was the failings of obtaining the s20 agreement – particularly the failure to really convey to the parents that they had a choice not to sign it and that they could withdraw their consent at any time, which sank this Local Authority.

 

The evidence offered in this case has been considered already. I have found that at material times the defendants were indeed acting outside the statutory authority granted to it by Parliament to interfere with the family life of Mr and Mrs Williams. However they were doing so in the mistaken belief that they had sufficient consent from the parents to authorise their actions under section 20 of the Children Act 1989. They were taking decisions and implementing actions solely for the purpose of protecting children against risks which, on the basis of the information they had, they reasonably believed required protective steps to be taken. It was not disputed that some action was justified as a result of what was found on 6 July. There was at all times a potential for conflict of interest between the children and their need for protection and the parents who were suspected of neglect and abuse. The fact that they were subsequently exonerated of the criminal allegations does not mean there was not a basis for a belief that protective action was required. Therefore I find some difficulty in the distinctions Ms Cooper has sought to persuade me exist between this case and one concerning the actual diagnosis of abuse. Diagnosis and assessment of risk to children is not a one off event, but a continuous process in which the significance of information and the balance of risks has constantly to be reviewed. As the, at times somewhat painful, dissection of decisions and processes in this case has shown, disentangling the rights and wrongs of individual decisions can be complex. It would in my judgment raise the danger of inhibiting authorities from taking steps to safeguard children in difficult cases were they to be open to a minute examination of their every action in a case like this. In short, if there are exceptional cases where there is no conflict justifying an exclusion of cause of action in favour of a parent, this is not one of them. This is not to apply a blanket policy, but to do my best to apply the principles of the common law as determined by the higher courts to the facts of this case.

 

 

 

The Judge deals with the misfeasance in public office claim – as we’ve previously discussed on this blog, a key ingredient is that the action is deliberate, and here the Judge was satisfied that the professionals were operating on the mistaken belief that the parents had validly consented to s20 and that the Council thus had a legal power to keep the children in foster care – they were wrong about that, but it was a genuine belief.

 

The parents did, however, succeed on the Human Rights Act claim and were awarded £10,000 each.

 

 

  1. I consider that comparable factors are relevant in an Article 8 case generally, and the present case in particular. This was undoubtedly a close family presided over by loving parents. They were extremely distressed by the continued separation from their children and constantly voiced their anxieties in that regard to the defendants. They witnessed the adverse effects of foster care on more than one of their children, one of whom was a baby who was being breast fed. On the other hand, I must bear in mind that the initial separation was justified, and that an investigation of the type which occurred would have taken place in any event. This is not a case of permanent loss or bereavement, and the children were returned in the end.
  2. Clearly the claimants have not received adequate redress to date. While certain of their complaints were upheld by the complaints process and the Ombudsman, they have received no acknowledgement let alone compensation for the unlawful deprivation of the care of their children for a number of months. Reminding myself that awards of this type should be fairly modest, I consider that the appropriate sum to award to each parent is £10,000 each. It was contended by Ms Cooper that I should award aggravated or exemplary damages, but if I understood her submissions correctly this related to the misfeasance claim which I have rejected. In any event I do not consider that such an award would be appropriate.Conclusion
  3. For the reasons given judgment will be entered for the claimants in the sum of £10,000 each. I will hear submissions on any further and consequential orders that are said to arise out of this judgment.

 

 

 

 

And I’m all outta bubblegum

 

 

It is always enjoyable for me to receive a judgment from His Honour Judge Wildblood QC.  I expect that there may be a slightly different qualitative experience between reading one at a safe geographical distance and being physically present to receive it on a case you’re involved in.

 

My mental image of His Honour Judge Wildblood QC is that of a kindly man who nonetheless would be able to come into his Court room and open with the Rowdy Roddy Piper (God Rest his soul) line

 

“I came here to chew bubblegum and kick ass… and I’m all outta bubblegum”

 

[Incidentally, the fight scene in this movie, They Live, which is between two characters, one of whom wants the other to put on a pair of sunglasses and the other who is reluctant to don said sunglasses, is so epic that my dad came and got me out of bed to come and watch it at about three am, when he was watching this film on TV. And I was glad that he did. It is marvellous.  In case you are in any doubt – when I compare HH J Wildblood QC with Rowdy Roddy Piper it is intended as high praise]

This case does not disappoint on that level. There was clearly a deficiency of gum that day, but no deficiency of kicking ass.

 

Gloucestershire CC and M 2015

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2015/B147.html

I am publishing the judgment in this case because it is an example of the following:

i) The unnecessarily protected use of accommodation of a child under section 20 of The Children Act 1989. This child was accommodated with short term foster carers for 12 months before these inevitable proceedings were issued and has now been with them for about 16 months.

ii) The delayed identification of the need for therapeutic intervention for this mother. 19 months after the Local Authority intervened in a family where the mother had obvious difficulties it was identified that the mother needed therapy. It was then said that, by then, the benefit of therapy was ‘outwith the timescales of the child’. If psychological evidence was to be obtained with the invariable recommendation of therapy (and I have never known a psychologist not recommend therapy in a report) I cannot understand why it was not obtained much earlier.

iii) Failure to identify realistic options leading to the adjournment of this final hearing and a consequent inability to meet the timetabling demands of section 32 of The Children Act 1989, as amended.

 

Section 20 drift has been something of a theme of the Courts and hence this blog, for some time now.

As a quick rule of thumb for a social worker thinking about a case in their cabinet/caseload where there’s a section 20 agreement, ask yourself this question

 

If the mother or father rang you this afternoon and said “I want the child back” would you be ?

 

(a) Perfectly fine about that and make the arrangements

(b) Okay about it, but suggest that the move take place over the next 2 days to make the preparations

(c) Concerned and thinking that the child would not be safe at the moment, if they went home

(d) In a blind panic, and wanting to do anything to stop that happening

 

If your answer is (c) or (d), then it isn’t really a proper use of section 20 any more. The section 20 here is a very short holding position until you can either have a Meeting Before Action at which the parents will have lawyers, or care proceedings at which the parents will have lawyers.

 

 

  1. C grew up in the primary care of his mother until 28th May 2014 when, at the age of 5, he was removed from the mother under police powers of protection and then accommodated by the Local Authority with foster carers. The mother does not accept that the threshold criteria in s31 (2) of The Children Act 1989 are fulfilled and has also issued a claim for damages under The Human Rights Act 1998 in relation to the circumstances in which C was removed from her care and the manner in which the Local Authority has conducted itself in relation to C. On the same day in May 2014 A went to live with Mr D.
  2. For no valid reason it took the Local Authority a year, that is until 15th May 2015, to issue these proceedings. In its application the Local Authority said at B9: ‘C was the subject of a child protection plan from August 2013 until 19th May 2014 as a consequence of neglectful parenting. The concerns related to the dirty and unhygienic home conditions and the mother’s mental health and its impact upon her parenting and capacity to meet her child’s needs. A week after de-registration a further child protection referral was received. C was accommodated on 29th May 2014 following police powers of protection being used on 28th May 2014. The police removed C as a consequence of a person known to be a risk to children continuing to have contact with him (against professional advice) and because of the unsuitable home conditions. On 29th September 2014 the mother was evicted from her flat which had been significantly damaged. The mother was sofa surfing. Roger Hutchinson, psychologist, completed a report on the mother on 9th March 2015. This concluded that the mother experiences social anxiety and schizoid and paranoid traits with poorly developed social, functional and adaptive skills. Therapy is indicated over a nine month period’.
  3. C has therefore been with his current foster carers for 16 months of his life, has settled with them and is integrated into life with them. His mother has been having contact with him twice a week for sessions lasting one hour and although there have been inevitable niggles about that contact, a condensed analysis of that contact could not express it as falling below the grasp of the adjective ‘reasonable’ on my current reading of the papers and submissions that were made at the IRH. C’s educational and social connections, at an important time of his life when he is settling into school, have all been made from the base of his current foster home. The foster carers have done an excellent job in caring for him and, in his letter to the judge, C says ‘my family is [the foster father, the foster mother and their cat]‘ and draws the foster father with a big smile on his face. The guardian reports that C is making ‘greatly improved progress at school and his health has improved’ since living with them [A14].

 

 

These three paragraphs of background raise the three obvious questions

 

  1. What the hell took the LA so long to issue?
  2. Is it fair for the LA to have delayed so long in finding out that mum needed 9 months of therapy – because if they’d found out earlier, she’d have had it by now
  3. IF the child can’t go and live with mother, surely this child is going to stay with the current carers if humanly possible

 

However, the LA in this case had delayed for so long, were saying that the child couldn’t wait for mum to have therapy, and had ruled out the current foster carer as an option.

 

Taking these in turn

i) Having been involved with this mother since August 2013 and having accommodated this child in May 2014 it is inexplicable that it took a year for the Local Authority to issue these proceedings. That has absolutely nothing to do with limited resources. It is simply bad practice.

 

On the issue of therapy :-

 

ii) The Local Authority knew the mother’s level of functioning but still took until 9th March 2015 to identify that this mother needed therapy. Knowing the mother’s level of functioning why did it take 19 months (from August 2013) to do that? How can it be regarded as satisfactory for the Local Authority now to say that the mother needs therapy which is outwith the timescales of the child? For instance, if a psychologist’s report had been obtained within three months of C being accommodated (i.e. in August 2014) there could have been 13 months of therapy by now at far less expense than the cost of these proceedings leading to the possibility that the consequences of this mother’s unfortunate background could have been mitigated with the child receiving an upbringing with her

 

[I have a bit of sympathy with the LA here –  I’m not sure whether anyone actually argued that as a result of House of Lords authority Kent County Council v G, it is not within the Court’s powers to compel the provision of therapy, that therapy thus has to be resourced through the NHS and the NHS aren’t going to provide therapy without a clear diagnosis and recommendation, at least not without a huge waiting list. So tempting as it is to just start the therapy whilst waiting for the expert report, that isn’t how the real world works.  It is fair enough to say that the real world in this regard sucks and it needs to change.   There is possibly a big argument to come as to whether the House of Lords settled position that “there is no article 8 right to be made a better parent at public expense” is compatible with what Baroness Hale says in Re B about the State needing to provide the resources to do just that, but that’s a debate that can only be resolved by the Supreme Court. ]

 

On the last issue, why the current foster carers had been rejected in favour of adoption by the LA.

 

  1. At the IRH, on 8th September 2015, I was told that the current foster carers were not offering C a long term home. The guardian says in her position statement: ‘since the IRH on 8th September 2015 the guardian has spoken to C’s current foster carers. They have confirmed they have never said they would not keep C long term as foster carers. They would not wish to consider special guardianship or adoption because they see themselves as foster carers and may well wish to foster another child and would wish both children to be placed with them on the same basis. The foster carer has also informed the guardian that Mr D has on a number of occasions said that he would be prepared to care for C if there were no other options’.
  2. It is right that, on 27th August 2015 there was a discussion between the adoption social worker, TG, and the foster carers. I have the case note in relation to that. This conversation therefore took place six days after the placement application had been filed by the Local Authority (so the Local Authority had already ruled out long term fostering then). The foster carers were saying at the time of that note that they did not feel able to adopt C. They are not recorded as saying that they would not foster C. It took one conversation between the guardian and the foster carers to clarify matters. When asked directly by the social worker on an unspecified date (but after the IRH) ‘the foster father confirmed that he and the foster mother would have C for as along as is needed in long term foster care with a care order if they were supported by the Local Authority’. The clear impression that I have, having read the papers, heard the IRH and listened to submissions today, is that the Local Authority did not consider the possibility of long term fostering with the foster carers and, once it regarded the mother as ruled out, its linear analysis took it to adoption.

 

So the child’s current foster carer, who everyone involved would agree had done a marvellous job, was willing to be a permanent carer for the child, just that he didn’t want to adopt the child. The LA had approached this on the basis of “our plan is adoption, you don’t want to adopt, therefore you are out”, rather than looking at whether the child could remain with the carer on a different basis THUS avoiding the need for adoption.

 

The case simply could not be concluded, as there were too many unknowns.

Following a heavy IRH on 8th September 2015 the case is listed before me for final hearing for the rest of this week. That final hearing cannot proceed because there are realistic options in relation to the future care of C that have not been assessed by the Local Authority. That means that large amounts of public money and time have been wasted in a Local Authority involvement that has spanned 16 months. All parties now say that the case has to be adjourned. Eventually, I have had to give up my attempt at keeping this case on the rails of this final hearing and have had to accede to adjournment. To adjourn a case where there has been lengthy Local Authority involvement with a family in a straightforward case is absurd but now unavoidable.

 

 

and in conclusion

  1. What are the options that need to be considered? They are these:

    i) That C should be rehabilitated to his mother. Of course, nature, law and common sense require that it be recognised that the best place for a child to live is with his natural parent unless proven and proportionate necessity otherwise demands. As matters stand the professional evidence is all stacked up against this mother but her case will require very careful consideration at a final hearing.

    ii) That C should continue to be a child fostered by Mr and Mrs B. If the Local Authority will not support this the only way in which C could live with the foster carers would be through private law orders. If special guardianship orders were to be proposed there would need to be a report under s14A(8) of The Children Act 1989. Therefore I need to flush out what the Local Authority is saying. If it will not agree that C should remain with the foster carers (should the court so recommend on the making of a care order and a rejection of the placement application), I will have to give directions for a special guardianship application to proceed (a written application is not necessary if I so determine – s14A(6)(b) of the 1989 Act). The possibility of C remaining with the foster carers is unassessed by the Local Authority and there has not been sufficient discussion with them.

    iii) That C should live with Mr D and A. This is also unassessed. There is no blood relationship between Mr D and C but there is a blood relationship between A and C. They have a clear fraternal attachment (in which C is A’s big brother). That possibility remains unassessed also.

    iv) That C should be placed for adoption. That is an option upon which I have already commented. I am not suggesting that there are difficulties about that option on the basis of age alone. I say that there are difficulties about it because of the particular circumstances of this child.

  2. Therefore today I have had to give directions for the future of these proceedings. By the time that the case comes back the new baby will have been born, and I wish the mother well with the birth. However, the advent of the new baby will mean that there are additional complications that will arise in ensuring that the best solution is found for C.
  3. I have given this judgment in writing so that there is a formal record of what has gone wrong in this case and how matters must now be put right. The Local Authority must consider the realistic options that arise and must put its case into order.
  4. Proper plans must be put in place for the birth of the baby and where the inevitable assessment of the mother and the baby will take place. That should have been done already. The mother is in and out of hospital at the moment and it is manifestly unfair that, as well as dealing with the physical demands of impending birth and repeated hospital appointments, she is also having to deal with the uncertainties of these proceedings and a lack of knowledge about what will happen when she does give birth – where will she be living and what is planned for the baby?
  5. The Local Authority must therefore look at the options that arise and file proper evidence in relation to them. The case will have to come back before me later this week when I will have to give further directions as to how that will be achieved. It is deeply frustrating that a case such as this has to exceed the timescales provided by section 32 of The Children Act 1989 and that should be recorded as having been caused by systemic failure by the Local Authority

 

 

There is also some pending litigation in this case as to whether when the child was originally removed from the parents by police protection, whether that was in breach of the families human rights – it being really settled law that where removal of a child is being contemplated it should be a decision of the Court unless there are exceptional and compelling reasons why the removal cannot wait for a Court hearing.